Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Perfect Lives, Polly Samson

Into Celia Idlewild’s perfect world an egg drops. There she is, preparing a perfect breakfast tray for her husband - "everything as it should be: black lacquer tray, two white porcelain cups, ginger thins, the Sunday worship on the radio” - when the egg plops through the letterbox and cracks on the mat.

On the shell is written in thick pen: “HAPPY FAT…”

We learn: "For a moment she was puzzled by what was written on the egg. But not for long.” The full message, obliterated in the smashed egg, would have been ‘happy father’s day’. The egg opens a crack onto another life that Celia has sought to close off; one she first learned of when a woman inadvertently alerted her to the existence of a child her husband has with another woman.

Celia has told him: "I will stay with you if you promise to never see that child again."

And now comes the egg: “Egg bomb. Stink bomb. Bombshell.”

Celia’s is just one of the, inevitably imperfect, lives presented in this collection of loosely-connected short stories; brief sketches, snapshots in which the lives of half a dozen assorted, seaside-dwelling artistic types overlap.

There is Richard, the brilliant pianist reduced to tuning old pianos turned tinny by the sea air. Richard must break off from a Chopin Barcarolle to ply his trade, and the highlight of his day is to tune Celia's perfect piano, “a Bosendorfer that had once apparently belonged to a high-ranking SS officer – who’s fingerprints stained the ivory keys?” It is the piano of his dreams.

Tarnished dreams are a recurring theme in the book.

Tilda the picture restorer has been winkled out of Hackney to take on her husband’s family farm and formidable mother; drawn there with tales of the fine strain of cattle bred there for generations, the fact she is pregnant, and an article about how to be happy in The Times.

But she can’t love the baby she bears: "She's tried, it’s like willing a dream."

Another woman carries on a curious kind of illicit relationship, cuckolding her husband not with another man but with a Leica camera that she covets, obsesses over and fritters money on as she might a secret lover.

Several of the lives drawn bear the inheritance of profound suffering: as Catholics in officially godless, communist-era Poland, or as the Jewish victims of Crystalnachte.

Yet, in the end, the cracks in these lives are often healed. Aurelia, a singer, performs on the same Hamburg stage her Jewish grandfather was booed from, but finds balm for the memory in taking a red rose thrown at her feet to place on his grave.

Estranged parents and children are reconciled. A potential tragedy ignited Tilda’s love of her baby and “a warmth like candlelight ran through her”.

The stories have a leisurely pace that belies a sharpness of observation and a depth of emotion. They are snatches that blend and develop like the short tracks on side two of The Beatles’ Abbey Road, each a significant and distinct part of a greater whole.

Perfect Lives by Polly Samson, Virago, £15.99