Perfect Lives by Polly Samson

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Perfect Lives by Polly Samson

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Category: Short Stories
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Luci Davin
Reviewed by Luci Davin
Summary: An intriguing collection of linked short stories, about family relationships, love and anger, past and present
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 256 Date: November 2010
Publisher: Virago Press
ISBN: 978-1860499920

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The eleven short stories in Perfect Lives are about a group of people living in an English seaside town. Each story of challenged relationships, devastating discoveries and objects and people with a history is carefully and beautifully crafted, stands alone and works well in its own right, but the connections between all the stories offer an extra, fascinating dimension. Each story made me want to look at the others again to understand how they all connect, to piece together the different bits of people's lives in each story. This format also offers an opportunity to see some of the characters from several different perspectives, and perhaps make the short stories more satisfying to those who are dissatisfied by their brevity, as some of the same characters reappear, so offering some of the advantages of the novel while staying in the short story form. There are four stories told in the first person by an unnamed woman who is married with two young sons, and then one of her sons has a story of his own (Ivan Knows). There are a variety of narrative viewpoints – women, men, a little boy, a teenage girl, first and third person.

Some of the stories are about treasured objects – in Barcarolle a piano tuner works with a wonderful piano (which is later revealed to have an interesting past) and a really poor quality one. In another, a woman buys a Leica camera and starts spending all her money and time on taking beautiful photos, keeping her new obsession a guilty secret from her husband, while desperately trying to think of the perfect present for him.

The stories I found most powerful though were those about relationships and about reactions to devastating revelations. There are several tales of mothers and children (from infancy to adulthood), including a disturbing account of postnatal depression (A Regular Cherub). A young woman goes on a trip to Poland with the long lost musician father whom she has recently re-established contact with, in At Arka Pana. A woman whose family life really does look outwardly perfect learns of a huge betrayal in The Egg. Perhaps my favourite is The Rose Before the Vine – Rose has just learned of a family history which has terrifying implications for her own daughters, one of whom has a young child herself. Many of these stories are quite sad and disturbing, but Samson can also be very witty, in stories such as Remote Control, in which a cat urges his human to take drastic action over her husband's TV addiction, and in the story about a camera.

While I liked some of these stories better than others, all are well worth reading, and Perfect Lives is highly recommended. Thank you to Virago for sending the Bookbag a copy of this collection.

Love Me Tender by Jane Feaver is another collection of linked short stories all set in the same small town with some recurring characters. Another recommended collection (though without the same linking) is Shena Mackay's The Atmospheric Railway: New and Selected Stories. You might also enjoy This Close by Jessica Francis Kane.

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