Fiction - Heart of ice

The Darkness of Wallis Simpson

Rose Tremain <em>Chatto & Windus, 215pp, £14.99</em>

ISBN 186

Rose Tremain's first short-story collection in 11 years could be seen as bleak, with the word "cold" being repeated again and again. The title piece finds Mrs Simpson locked in foul-smelling Beckettian squalor in a room overlooking a courtyard that is "cold and white with snow". Then comes "The Beauty of the Dawn Shift", in which a Russian border guard bicycles to the east in his uniform because he has no warm clothes - and "where he was going, it would be cold as death". The man does die, trapped in a railway carriage on a train whose engine driver has abandoned the journey because the snow is too thick to move through.

"Death of an Advocate" relates another death on a train, this time in 1877, when a Frenchman called Albert is stung by a bee in his sleeper and has a grotesque and fatal reaction. He had been on his way to Paris, having decided that life was insufferably tedious, after a family picnic where what most annoyed him "was everyone pretending they weren't cold". "The Dead Are Only Sleeping" follows a young woman from her unheated suburban flat to the morgue in which her father lies - "Naturally it was very cold," she says - and by this, the penultimate story, it seems natural that it should be so.

The collection is peopled with characters who are often "shivery" with "familiar small sufferings - feeling cold inside, being ignored by people ". Their lives are lonely, fragmented and loveless, yet the 12 stories here are intense, compelling and oddly heated, which has something to do with the way Tremain blends the emotional with the physical, the abstract with the concrete, to draw us into a place where hopelessness is not a passive state, but desperately charged: "His future was going wrong," she explains of the border guard who ends up freezing to death. "It was as though his thoughts were harmful chemicals setting off explosions in his brain."

Thoughts are "things" for Tremain's people, and "the future" is solid and vast. "I really didn't know how I was going to get through my future," a woman tells us at the end of "The Ebony Hand", in which a man decides to live in the local mental hospital. His wife is dead and his own future is now "an enormous mathematical equation that had no meaning for him". In "Moth", people and things become interchangeable; a sewing machine gets so hot it "won't let itself be touched".

Precision of physical description is crucial to these vaguely fantastical tales. From the dust on a skirting board that Wallis Simpson remembers, through food picked from a teenager's teeth and flicked into a fireplace, to sighs "so deep, they almost caused pain", we are grounded in intimate detail. Light is important and carefully drawn: "Morning arrives in Paris, first as a grey presence in the room, a thing which has barely decided to stay, and then as a shaft of light, gold and soft." Sunlight is never bright, because that would melt the ice at the heart of this collection, which is finally triumphant.

In the last story, "Peerless", a man nicknamed Badger sponsors a penguin called Peerless, because that was the name of his only school friend. Visiting his penguin, Badger is distressed to find that his pool is too warm, and so decides to bring ice every day to cool it. "When the penguins saw him coming, hugging the ice . . . they came waddling to him . . . And he thought as he watched them that this was the thing he'd been waiting for, to alter the lot of someone or something." His warm satisfaction is matched by ours: made great by the glistening chill that precedes it.

Sheena Joughin's most recent novel is Swimming Underwater (Doubleday)