Mixed blessings

Diamond Dust

Anita Desai <em>Chatto & Windus, 224pp, £12.99</em>

ISBN 0701169001

"For the urban dog at any rate, expectation of sex is slender in the extreme," observed J R Ackerley in My Dog Tulip. The title story of Anita Desai's new collection shows that such enforced canine celibacy is as common in India as it is in England, and just as funny. Diamond is a horror: he bites the postman, tearing his trousers; he terrorises local children; and he lopes away down dingy alleys in his constant quest for forbidden couplings. Desai is more restrained than Ackerley - less laugh-out-loud than smirk-worthy - but she unleashes all the comic potential inherent in the human foible that is dog-worship. "Diamond Dust" is an absurd story; Desai's genius is in capturing life's absurdity with benign and understated wit.

The nine stories here span three continents: from Canada to Mexico; from the Devon coast to New Delhi. My guess is that Desai is an excellent mimic, because she can do all the voices: the English say "daft" and the Indians call old ladies "Aunty"; each nationality has its own idiosyncratic equivalent of sniffing with resentment. Human nature being universal, it is only these small variances of expression that indicate the differences in location - these and the birds and trees. In Mexico, a hummingbird hovers over a plate-sized hibiscus; in India, mynah birds twitter in a grove of bamboo, or parrots squawk in a pipal tree; in an English dusk, blackbirds call from the darkening elms. The quality of a short story must be, almost by definition, in the details: here, a mood, a time of day or even a whole nation is evoked by the mention of leaves or a bird's song.

Desai is brilliant, too, at supplying tiny, telling details about often peripheral characters: a reproachful old aunt has a long face that "swung in the dark like a cow's"; an unmarried, middle-aged daughter eats coloured jelly "relishing each chill, slippery mouthful as an armadillo might enjoy slipping slugs down its throat". Desai rightly identifies small gestures of fastidiousness, such as someone holding a handkerchief over their nose as they pass a butcher's shop, as an excellent index of character.

What is less satisfying, here, is the larger picture. Diamond Dust doesn't read like a collection of stories that were meant to be put together. It lacks cohesion. Not that Desai deserves to be rebuked for her powers of invention or variety - quite the reverse. But I don't think that her skill is rewarded by the current volume. Reading more than one story at a time - each so different in tone and effect to its neighbours - is disconcerting.

There are essentially two types of short story: those which spring from a conceit, and which therefore exist to eke out a single idea; and those which contain enough material to have become a novel, but which, for some reason, the writer has been generous enough to compress. Most writers go in for either one or the other: Alice Munro or William Trevor tend to the perambulations of the latter kind; Raymond Carver or John Updike to the pithiness of the former. Desai does both. She is funnier - and rather less merciful - when she is simply telling a slight, straight- forward tale; but she is more subtle, and more interesting, when she meanders.

There are five stories in Diamond Dust that could have made novels. (By coincidence, one of them tells the same story as Will Self's forthcoming How the Dead Live, his strongest novel yet.) I like profligacy in a writer, so these five stories seem to me to be Desai's finest, especially the sad and tender "Winterscape", in which a husband is obliged to reveal to his wife that he has two mothers: one biological, the other her widowed sister to whom she entrusted the baby. The account of these two venerable Indian ladies visiting their son in Canada has everything that Desai does best: ruefulness, sympathy, cultural displacement and a Chekhovian sense of nostalgia. All this and jokes, too.

Cressida Connolly's collection of short stories The Happiest Days is available in paperback from Fourth Estate (£6.99)

This article first appeared in the 05 June 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Driving back to happiness