For an author to mark her debut in published fiction with a collection of
four short stories is unusual since this is ordinarily the preserve of
novelists who have an established reputation for story-telling behind them. However, any doubts about the wisdom of publishing this first collection is soon dispelled by the high quality of writing evident from the opening page. ‘In retrospect, I am inclined to blame the whole thing on Umberto Eco’ may seem too sententious a beginning for the opening story, but when one realises that this kind of conceit is typical of the narrator of Island of the Day Before Yesterday, it becomes perfectly apt. Simone Strachey is a wonderful creation. Unbearably smug in the correctness of his own judgement, he employs a plain secretary (“Dreary Dora”) to help him catalogue his father’s memorabilia which the Sunday Times has taken an interest in. Typically, he attempts to deceive the newspaper by re-inventing Dora via Harvey Nichols as a member of the sixties King’s Road in-crowd. Inevitably, this deception backfires and in the choicest comic moments of the book, Strachey is left attempting to explain to himself how he could have got it so very wrong. Although not a particularly likeable character, Stevenson does allow him some very funny asides on such objectionable aspects of the modern world as literary biography and marie claire magazine.
The deception practised in Law and Order involves putting to the test the theory that without establishing motive, the law cannot ascribe guilt. Florian and Hendrik are twin brothers studying law at the University of Leiden, where they fall under the spell of their tutor Professor van Aldegonde who subscribes to the theory outlined above. In many ways this is a straightforward Faustian tale, but Stevenson brings the drama to life with her faultless depiction of setting and character.
If problems of self-identity occupy the twins in Law and Order, in The Colonel and Judy O’Grady they threaten to overwhelm the cast. Nominally, this story concerns the experiences of a young Irish woman in an exiled Tibetan Buddhist community in northern India as related to a University acquaintance in Edinburgh. But the tale widens to include the crisis of identity of, by turns, the British expatriates, the Tibetans, O’Grady and finally the narrator herself as she muses upon her own self-understanding as a Scot and a Briton.
Oliver, an out of work artist and narrator of the final piece resembles Strachey in his mocking superiority (‘I pinched the current World of Interiors and laughed myself to sleep.’), but is so shot through with cynicism and alcohol that he earns the frigid contempt of the group of friends he is staying with in east Anglia. When Oliver gives full rein to his scorn of the pretensions of his fellow guests, particularly the obvious targets of the unsophisticated soldier and the irritating young boy, he unwittingly leads them on an escapade that threatens to turn farce into tragedy. Stevenson’s prose here is at its most measured as she leads the reader from the biting dialogue of the domestic setting to the confused and languid darkness of the countryside.
Throughout the book as a whole, there is an assurance, wit and intelligence that will prove attractive to many readers, particularly if they have an empathy for resolutely cultured, bourgeois settings. It is a sparkling debut that promises greater achievements in future.
Reviewed by Robert Whitehouse