Brief lives

The Unfinished Novel and Other Stories

Valerie Martin <em>Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 192pp, £14.99</em

This collection of six stories is rich with the unsparing intelligence that informed Valerie Martin's previous book Property, winner of the 2003 Orange Prize. Property was the narrative of Manon Gaudet, the wife of a slave owner in early 19th-century Louisiana. According to many commentators on the novel, Manon was a cold and unsympathetic figure. In her haughty attitude to the slaves, she was certainly a product of her times; but she was also a prisoner of them, too sharp of vision to be contented, yet too blinkered to be free. Martin never lapsed into the sentimentality of allowing us to make clear, liberal judgements. Similar ambiguities challenge the reader of The Unfinished Novel and Other Stories.

The stories are concerned with artists, writers and theatre people. Some of these figures are talented, others are more workmanlike. The workmanlike ones tend to be the narrators and, because of their painful feelings about people with greater talent, cannot be relied upon. In "His Blue Period", a painter called John recalls his association - friendship would not be the right word - with Meyer Anspach, a flamboyant, vainglorious and more successful contemporary. John covets Anspach's girlfriend, but never believes that he can attract her away. Or does he? Perhaps, out of jealousy, he leads her on, only to abandon her when he meets someone more eligible. That is not the version he presents, but it is what the other characters believe.

Jealousy appears again in the title story, the longest in the collection. Max, a modestly successful writer, is on a short visit to his home city of New Orleans when he bumps into Rita Richard, a former lover. He recalls his dismay, 20 years previously, on finding that Rita had emulated him in leaving the city to enrol as a creative writing student in Vermont - and his despair on discovering how good she was. They had been lovers before Rita, stealing his money, left him for another woman. She used him, he insists. Now she arrives in his life again, beauty departed, overweight and clearly unwell. She comes, too, with a manuscript, a thousand pages long and still incomplete. ("'Go ahead,' Rita said. 'Have a look. You know you're dying to.'") Max returns to Vermont, learning soon afterwards of Rita's death, and of her bequest to him of her novel. What will he do with it? The answer is shocking; but he takes his action "with a sense of purpose and well-being". Martin's narrative switches between past and present, subtly timing its revelations until arriving at Max and the inherited manuscript.

The relationship between fate and the artist is another theme of the collection. In "The Bower", Sandra, a drama teach- er, directs a brilliant young student called Carter in a production of Hamlet. As Carter enunciates the most famous words in the play, "No one in the audience doubted that this was the first time he had ever so irresistibly put the proposition to himself." Sandra and the much younger man have an affair; he also has an insecure girlfriend. These Shakespearean echoes, however, are not Martin's main concern. Carter leaves, apparently for a glittering future; but something terrible happens, and he retreats to a life of obscurity. When Hamlet asked himself whether to be or not to be, his fate was already sealed. Sandra recalls how Carter performed that scene as if with some intimation of the disaster ahead.

Just occasionally, Martin's writing has a routine flavour. The description of a woman as "willowy and athletic" seems formulaic, particularly when another willowy woman features in the following story. But this is a cavil in the context of Martin's large gift: for fiction that insidiously enters the reader's imagination, and lingers.

Nicholas Clee's Don't Sweat the Aubergine is published by Short Books