How Much the Heart Can Hold: Seven Stories on Love by Carys Bray and others

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How Much the Heart Can Hold: Seven Stories on Love by Carys Bray and others

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Category: Short Stories
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Rebecca Foster
Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
Summary: The heart holds a lot of metaphorical weight. These seven stories are unusual windows onto different kinds of love, from familial to erotic. Carys Bray's and Nikesh Shukla's stories are particular highlights; there is also strong work from Donal Ryan and Rowan Hisayo Buchanan.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 160 Date: November 2016
Publisher: Sceptre
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781473649422

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This Sceptre collection does not have as simple a remit as it might appear; these are no straightforward love stories. Instead, they each take one aspect of love – often one of the ancient Greek classifications – and provide a whole new way of thinking about it. After all, the heart holds a lot of metaphorical weight.

For example, the opening story by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, 'Before It Disappears,' is meant to illuminate la douleur exquise of unrequited love. Yet it is not about heartsick would-be lovers, as one might expect, but about a married couple: Richard and his Chinese wife, Joy, who is suffering from late-stage anorexia. Even though he cheated and she fell out of love with him, he is determined to see her well and sneaks honey past her lips while she sleeps. Switching between the two main characters' points of view, the story shows Joy drifting into hallucinations of escape and Richard desperately trying to make amends. I loved Buchanan's ambivalent descriptions of the Highlands setting: 'the bee-confettied summer air' versus 'The sun snivels weakly behind white cloud' and 'oilrigs stick ruddy fingers up from the deep.'

In his four books Donal Ryan has proved his facility at creating peculiar, even mentally ill narrators. 'Magdala, Who Sometimes Slips' is a striking character study of mania, or obsessive love. From the age of 15 she's been in love with Robert. Even after he married Ursula, Magdala continued to carry a flame. She made a diorama of everything they ever did and everywhere they ever went together. She talks to her dead parents, too. The clever choice of a first-person voice means you can't dismiss Magdala as crazy because you see situations from her eyes and sympathise with her as she explains occasional 'slips' into odd behaviour.

My two favourite stories come from Nikesh Shukla and Carys Bray. In Shukla's 'White Wine', a sitcom scriptwriter commiserates with his sister, Rupa, when she experiences racism at the hands of her passive-aggressive marketing boss. She tries to become knowledgeable about wine to impress her boss, but he encourages her not to be a 'self-hating Asian' by striving to be something she's not. This one perfectly illustrates its assignment: philautia is healthy self-love.

The best stand-alone story is Bray's 'A Series of Codas', in which Louise learns that her father Phil has collapsed during a seniors football match. As a single mother and the daughter of divorced parents, she keenly feels her responsibilities to the generations either side of her: to her father as he recovers from aneurysm coil surgery, and to her son Max as he takes ballet lessons to help him with his balance and coordination for sport. Although the title phrase describes life and relationships as a series of inevitable endings and goodbyes, this is not a sad story. It's more about how we adjust to life's changes and treasure what's left. An example of storge, or familial love, the story broadens the definition of family by including Phil's football team too. Bray also effectively explores the contrast between the brain and heart as physical organs (as in the cover image) and their use as metaphorical seats of thought and emotion: 'she was suddenly blasé about hearts. They were just plumbing, she decided. Appliances, with replaceable pipes, ducts and vents. People were still themselves after grafts and bypasses and pacemakers.'

Of the remaining three stories, Bernardine Evaristo's is a somewhat clichéd one from the viewpoint of God: apart from the deity being a black woman with an Afro, it's not dissimilar to Bruce Almighty. Canadian writer D.W. Wilson's offering has a hard-living middle-aged man setting off to find the girl he loved at 19. My least favourite came from Grace McCleen: a sort of anti-fairytale with simplistic 'He' and 'She' phrases, it has a nine-year-old girl wondering at her parents' relationship, obsessing about sex and bodies, and (I think) having her first orgasm on holiday in Spain. Though it fits the eros theme, it's not at all pleasant to read.

I enjoyed how these stories use loose definitions of the different kinds of love and play around with the boundaries. Ultimately, my rating reflects the fact that the quality is uneven: there are two excellent stories, two very good ones, and three that fall into the range of okay or forgettable. Still, this is a quick read and one that will introduce you to new authors and/or reacquaint you with familiar ones.

(If you fancy writing about a concept of love yourself, Sceptre is running a competition for the best story between the book's publication date and Valentine's Day 2017; the winner gets £150 and will be published in the paperback edition.)

Further reading suggestion: If you enjoy their stories here, you'll want to read more by the individual authors: A Song for Issy Bradley by Carys Bray, The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan and Coconut Unlimited by Nikesh Shukla. For more short stories about love and relationships, try Dear Life by Alice Munro and Married Love by Tessa Hadley.

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