Heart-shaped bullets

The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing

Melissa Bank <em>Viking, 274pp, £9.99</em>

Don't be misled by the title of Melissa Bank's debut collection into expecting tales of a young woman's adventures in the great American outdoors. This is not fiction in the vein of Pam Houston (Cowboys Are My Weakness): no shooting rapids, no shooting of caribou, no shooting the breeze around a campfire. The themes of love, survival and self-discovery in a hostile environment are there, but the setting is mostly urban New York, and the hunting and fishing are strictly metaphorical - an allusion to the emotional snares with which human animals trap, or are entrapped by, one another. It's a terrain Bank surveys with an acute gaze. By the end we are left wondering if we wouldn't sooner wrestle a half-ton grizzly than risk yet another direct hit to the heart from a (supposed) loved one.

These self-contained but connected stories offer a series of vignettes of the narrator, Jane Rosenal, at various points in her life. A teenage kid sister describing the meet-the-folks ordeal of her brother's first serious girlfriend; a young woman on a holiday from hell with her boyfriend and his ex; a matriarch cast as consultant Cupid to her grown-up, mixed-up children; a thirtysomething career woman patching the holes in yet another of her own ripped relationships . . . Wherever we dip into Rosenal's story we find hard-learnt lessons in love. Told out of chronological sequence, and with little attempt to sketch in the periods between them, the episodes nevertheless have the cumulative effect of portraying a heroine as complete and as complex as in any novel.

The finest stories are the longest, "The Worst Thing a Suburban Girl Could Imagine" and "The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing". In the former, Jane's father lies dying of leukaemia, her older partner's alcoholism triggers a diabetic relapse and her self-confidence at work (she is an assistant editor at a publishing house) is undermined by a new boss. The interweaving of the strands is deft, but beyond mere technical accomplishment is Bank's ability to evoke sympathy for her characters.

In the title story, the author displays another of her talents: humour. Here, our heroine - in romantic desperation - resorts to buying a self-help manual, How to Meet and Marry Mr Right. After meeting Robert at a wedding, she sets about winning him, literally, by the book - slavishly following its step-by-step guide, the epithetic advice (keep him guessing, don't be funny, wear your hair long) muttered in her ears at every move. The result is a clever, poignant satire on the manipulations we deploy in the quest for true love, whatever that may be. The weak link in the collection is "You Could Be Anyone", the only tale in which Jane, we assume, does not feature. An unnamed woman is diagnosed with breast cancer and hooked into a turbulent affair with a man too confused and selfish to be of much use. The subject matter fits snugly with the other pieces, but the second-person narration feels contrived and, untypically, leaves the author's literary intentions too close to the surface.

Bank, an award-winning short-story writer in the US, scored a hit in her home country with this book and is adapting it as a screenplay for Francis Ford Coppola, no doubt securing her transition from advertising copywriting to fiction. High among her skills is the milking of exceptional pathos from superficially unexceptional situations without resorting to melodrama or sentimentality. Her eye for observational nuance is sharp, and the prose is crystalline and spare.You could pick out all the wasted words and still not gather enough vocabulary for a page of Pinter dialogue. And if there are occasional lapses into pretentiousness, these are rare enough to be forgiven. This is her debut, after all, and an unusually consistent and confident one.

Martyn Bedford is the author of "The Houdini Girl" (Viking)

This article first appeared in the 05 July 1999 issue of the New Statesman, He makes us nice enough for export