Sunday, 13 February 2011
Book review: Stuart Evers - Ten Stories about Smoking
The Scottish Booker Prize winner James Kelman once said: "As with writing, smoking can be an enjoyable solitary pursuit."
While the 10 stories in Stuart Evers' first collection are ostensibly all about smokers, the one thing that really links all of the protagonists is their solitariness - solitariness pierced through with a sense of loss, loneliness and all too often heartbreak.
The opening story, "Some Great Project," sees a man going through his parents' things after their death. He comes upon pictures that lead him to discover he has a half-brother who he tracks down and is very quickly rejected by.
While a lot of the stories in this collection revolve around this fundamental sense of desolation, Evers' simple but perfectly weighted writing imbues them with an emotional, fragile strength way more powerful than that found in many short stories.
You could get through most of these stories in the time it would take to smoke a couple of cigarettes, but that is so often a virtue rather than a drawback. Evers uses every word to maximum effect, as any great short story writer (Helen Simpson; Dan Rhodes; Anton Chekhov) does.
From the best man deserting the future groom's bawdy stag do in "The Best Place in Town" to the paranoid woman inventing her husband's affair in "Eclipse", Evers distils whole worlds and fully formed lives within a matter of pages.
As he writes in "Real Work" - "Cities are as big or small as you wish to make them", and even though the cities he creates with his stories often only have one of two people within them, wrapped up within each character is a whole life's and world's worth of poignant emotional punch.
As the collection progresses other themes more associated with smoking - death and disappearance (every cigarette disappears within minutes) - come more to the fore.
But even as Evers shows two men, dying prematurely from a life of smoking, enjoying their final cigarettes, he avoids moralising or sentimentality.
Reading - like perhaps writing or smoking - can be an enjoyable solitary pursuit, but rarely is it as enjoyable as when you have a book of this quality in your hands.