Black Vodka by Deborah Levy

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Black Vodka by Deborah Levy

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Category: Short Stories
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: A collection of ten disturbing and frequently achingly sad pieces of writing from the Booker nominated Deborah Levy, mainly focussing on the search for, and loss of love in a modern world.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 125 Date: February 2013
Publisher: And Other Stories
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781908276162

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Black Vodka is a collection of ten previously published short pieces of writing by Deborah Levy, many first published in the early 2000s. The most recent is the piece from which this collection gains its title which has been shortlisted for the 2012 BBC International Short Story Award. As a compilation of her writing, obviously these were not written to appear together, but some clear themes emerge from the collection, namely a deeply disturbing look at the search for love, particularly amongst those on the edge of society.

The collection is described as ten 'short stories' and while there can be no doubting the accuracy of the term 'short' here - all of the pieces are short and some very brief - these are 'stories' only in the widest sense of the word. It's probably better to think of them as creative writing pieces. They are more like vignettes or snippets of haunting dreams. They work on the reader much more like a poem does, providing images and set ups rather than what you might conventionally think of as stories.

The other part of the publisher's cover blurb that I take partial issue with is the reference to Levy's 'razor-sharp humour'. The 'razor-sharp' phrase is accurate - her writing is indeed sharp and edgy, but I, for one, detected nothing that I would call 'humorous'. In fact, the collection as a whole is mysterious and more often than not, deeply sad. Perhaps the essence the publishers were trying to convey is a sense of playfulness about some of the settings, but I'm not sure you can have 'razor-sharp playfulness' - but if you can, then this is a good example of it. Many of her settings are strange and if I hadn't known the author's identity, I would have guessed at a Latin American origin. It has that almost nightmare-like sense of strangeness.

The brevity of each story makes it tempting for the reader to want to 'just read one more' but I'm not sure this is the way to get the best from these pieces. They work best if you dip into it and read one and then let the images play around in your mind. Taken together they can come over as a little too disturbing. One minute you are reading about a hunchbacked advertising executive seeking the love and acceptance of a colleague's girlfriend in Black Vodka and another you are reading about a wife's premonition of the end of her marriage in Roma. In Stardust Nation Levy returns to the corporate world and has a weird transference of an executive's early life trauma seemingly switched to a colleague, while in Cave Girl the narrator is a boy who falls in love with his sister's new image. Placing a Call is a painfully sad story of loss which is perhaps the most creatively imaginative piece in the collection.

Strange and sad, yes, but this is an interesting collection of images about the search for love and loss of love in a very modern world. The sense is one of isolation in a busy world. Levy's prose is distinctively intriguing and highly original. Just be warned that if you read before bed, this might give you unsettling dreams.

Our grateful thanks to the kind people at And Other Stories for bringing this book to our attention.

For more excellent short stories, then consider Light Lifting by Alexander MacLeod or Dark Lies the Island by Kevin Barry.

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