Cast of cliches

Lying in Bed

Polly Samson <em>Virago Press, 213pp, £14.99</em>

Polly Samson's widely heralded debut collection of stories assembles a group of characters familiar to readers of women's writing. There are lonely daughters, wives in various stages of abandonment, trapped women, women desperate for children and mothers who have lost their grip. All the usual suspects, in fact. To this cast of cliches Samson brings a certain style and a taste for unexpected narrative twists.

Black humour is Samson's saving grace. In the title story the sulky heroine Sally accepts engagement to a middle-aged Tory she loathes, partly to irritate her parents and partly out of a sense of guilt for her unwitting part in the breakdown of his first marriage. The coruscating "Daddy's Girl", meanwhile, plumbs the depths of marital humiliation as an adoring husband finds out just where he ranks in his wife's affections.

If these stories suggest a sharp eye and comic potential, the remainder of Lying in Bed suggests a writer rushed into publication before her talent has matured. Ranging from the uninvolving plot of "Looking for Signs" to the embarrassing caricatures of "Moss Roses", these fictions show Samson striving to find a voice and a subject, but leave the reader trying to find the point.

Part of Samson's problem is her choice of topic and her frequent failure to find a new approach to it. "The Mermaid's Purse" recounts Leoni's traumatic dinner with Len, one of several men who could be the father of her unborn child. By the end of the evening the two are estranged; and by the end of the story Leoni has given birth and discovered that the identity of her daughter's father is unimportant. It's an interesting enough theme but in this writer's hands remains insubstantial.

Samson tends to rely on melodrama to produce her effects. "Blood Roses in the Snow", about a baby-snatcher, was reportedly inspired by her feelings of distress when first friends and then strangers commented on how different Samson's blond second baby looked to her dark-haired self. Meditating on how she might feel if the child she adored really wasn't hers, Samson seems to have written "Blood Roses" as an experiment in imaginative recreation. At once warm with maternal love - the baby is described as having a "toasty-buttered-currant-bun smell" - and tense with the kidnapper's twitchy fear, it's a discomfiting, provocative piece until the close, when the heroine is edged into an unconvincing suicide bid.

Reading these often underdeveloped tales, one is haunted by the knowledge of how much more can be done in the short story form. Helen Simpson, an admittedly more literary writer than Samson, has charted much the same path with her witty accounts of the jealousies and frustrations of love in Four Bare Legs in a Bed and Dear George. Yet Simpson's lively and rigorous narratives manage to be both more daring and more diverting than Samson's, as a result of their impassioned investigation of the emotions. In a very different realm, A L Kennedy's two most recent collections, Now That You're Back and Original Bliss, take life at an altogether wilder angle and prove that stings can come anywhere in a narrative, not just at the end. Still, there is no denying Samson's inchoate talent.

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