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Equal Love
Peter Ho Davies

Equal Love
Peter Ho Davies
London 2000

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Peter Ho Davies’ first book, “The Ugliest House in the World”, gained widespread recognition on both sides of the Atlantic for its vivid evocation of feeling, sharp eye for detail and its capacity to immerse the reader in new worlds from story to story – from Coventry to South East Asia via the eastern seaboard of the United States.

If there is a complaint about Davies’ remarkable second collection, “Equal Love”, it is that this volume represents a refinement and polishing of the techniques seen in the first volume, rather than a radical departure in terms of style or content. This may, of course, be a good thing: too many fledgling careers are ruined by authors who stray too far from what they know.

At their best, Davies stories are breathtaking, as in the opener here, “The Hull Case”, or the achieved, “Everything You Can Remember in Thirty Seconds Is Yours To Keep”. The crux of Davies’ style is his ability to add not just detail, but the right detail into the narrative to solicit emotion. So a grandmother who is being left alone in a nursing home turns from a window “dazzled by the light, turning round, her arm gone sore from waving, her eyes adjusting to the dimness of the room.”

Where this technique works – as it mostly does in this volume – the stories approach the condition of poetry, hitting their mark by subtle evocation of mood or place, rather than the blunt, overstated plots too often seen in short stories. As in “The Ugliest House in the World”, the range of place and topic is impressive, from UFO investigations in sixties America to a present-day Moss Side drug-den.

Underlying the overt theme of love between family members, this collection has a more subtle concern with children and giving birth; so both “The Hull Case”, and, “Cakes of Baby” deal with couples who cannot have children; “Everything You Can Remember”, with a mother who cannot cope with her child; “Frogmen”, with the death of a child, and “Small World” with the impending birth of a child. It is interesting that these stories deliver their emotional impact better than the others in the book.

Inevitably, the range of place, time and theme which Davies undertakes will lead to the occasional lapse of voice – would a British drug addict, or any Briton, really say, “gotten off a horse”, rather than “got”? More rarely, we are once or twice invited to a world which seems a bit closed off in its use of personal detail for the story to deliver fully, the guiltiest party in this book being, “How to be an Expatriate”, which felt a bit like listening to a joke translated from another language and which, as a result, doesnt quite come off.

But these are small complaints about a writer who has delivered an emotionally subtle and engaging collection of stories that has the great virtue of being easy to read. Davies is currently at work on his first novel, and it will be interesting to see whether he manages to maintain the evocative power and emotional tension of his prose when faced with the very different challenges which novels present to their authors.

Reviewed by James Wood


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