I don’t read many short-stories these days, but this collection is a must.
Live Show, Drink Included – Collected Stories by Vicky Grut
Fiction. Short Stories. For the stories in this collection Vicky Grut takes inspiration from a range of often ordinary situations and explores how easily things can go awry or take an unexpected turn. The stories veer from the realistic to the surreal, and nothing is quite what it seems.
To give you a flavour of what they are like here are a few snippets:
In “Rich,” two young people travelling towards Florence just after the Bologna bombing of 1980, decide to cadge a meal and a bed for the night from a girl they barely know. In the early hours of the morning, the atmosphere suddenly changes. They are in over their heads.
In “Mistaken,” an academic is mistaken for a shop assistant in a big London department store. When she reacts impulsively she finds herself in trouble. Help comes from an unlikely quarter–and for all the wrong reasons.
In “Into the Valley,” a woman tries to comfort her suffering mother-in-law on ward 19 in a small hospital in Wales. Underneath the ward sign it says, in English and in Welsh, “Bereavement Office / Swyddfa Profedigaeth.” There probably isn’t a ward 20.
Many of the stories have been shortlisted for awards and prizes over the years, including the Asham Award (twice) and the Narrative Magazine Contest in the US. Six of the stories were included in new writing collections from Serpents’ Tail, Pulp Editions, Duckworths, Granta, Picador and Bloomsbury, and two were published in the States by Harvard Review. The final story “Into the Valley” was included in the list of “Essays of Note in 2012” at the end of Cheryl Strayed’s edition of Best American Essays, 2013. Be prepared to not only be entertained but also taken by surprise when reading the fourteen mini-novels in this collection.
‘Some are dark and disturbing tales of lives viewed from under the mad end of a microscope, others are more of a glimpse of lives gone sideways.’ – Alexei Sayle
‘These delicious, dark, funny and affecting stories – reminiscent of Flannery O’Connor – remind us that life does not come with simple solutions and that often it is in the terrifying messiness that we are the most alive.’ – Tania Hershman
About the Author
Vicky Grut was born in South Africa and lived in Madagascar and Italy before moving to England in 1980 to study fine art at Goldsmiths. She has worked in community arts, for a small independent publisher, as a freelance editor, in the London office of the New Yorker magazine, as a creative writing tutor and a lecturer in several universities, including the London South Bank University and the University of Greenwich. Her first short story was published in 1994 in Metropolitan magazine and since then her work has appeared in new writing collections and literary magazines around the world, including collections published by Picador, Granta, Duckworth, Serpents’ Tail and Bloomsbury.
Vicky was twice a finalist for the Asham Award. “Into the Valley” was listed as a Notable Essays of 2012 in Best American Essays 2013. “In the Current Climate” won the Holland Park Press “I is Another” contest in 2015. Her novel-in-progress Human Geography was shortlisted for the 2017 Caledonia Novel Award.
I received an ARC copy of the book from the publisher. This has in no way affected the content of my review.
This is a great collection of short stories. The author has a talent for being able to create a vivid background for her stories and she also gives us a good insight into who her characters are and what makes them tick. I am mostly a reader of novels, and I am aware that sometimes, even after reading a whole novel we still don’t have a clear sense of who these characters are, so this is a skill I particularly appreciate. The stories are beautifully observed; we get to see what is going on through the heads of the characters and also the situation that develops around them. The stories share a variety of moments and events in the lives of the characters, seemingly chosen randomly, ranging from tales of job difficulties, to family relationships, illnesses, and even the death of some of the characters.
I didn’t find any of the stories weak, and I enjoyed them all, although some of them might be better received depending on the mood of the reader and personal taste.
I’ll briefly comment each one:
In the Current Climate. A quietly menacing story that although somewhat surreal and taken to extremes seems very apt in today’s job market and big companies.
Debts. In appearance a vignette of everyday life rather than a complete story, it beautifully conveys how our state of mind can be reflected and amplified by everything around us: interfering neighbours, children’s tantrums, and even the weather. Mundane, wonderfully observed and beautiful.
Downsizing. After reading this story, I don’t think I’ll ever think of audits and management books in quite the same way. A great combination of realistic insight into the workings of modern companies and corporations and the whimsy and imagination of people that can never be totally subjugated.
Mistaken. Retail therapy with a difference. An articulate and high-achieving academic discovers that prejudice is still alive and well, sisterhood can have different meanings for different people, and some artworks can be prescient.
An Unplanned Event. The story of a man who never felt he belonged anywhere and finally gets to feel accepted and loved.
Escape Artist. A young woman ends up violently trapped at home and realises that she is also trapped in her relationship.
Live Show, Drink Included. What starts at a seemingly seedy and slightly menacing location turns up to be a beautiful love story full of light humour and some of my favourite lines.
“If you cut me open with a little knife there’d be a print of her right there in the middle of me” (Grut, 2018, p. 86).
A Minor Disorder. Two young men travelling in South Africa in the mid-1950s with very different attitudes to the situation are affected by the atmosphere around them in contrasting ways.
Saucers of Sweets. A story of life imitating art, especially recommended to people in the book publishing business, with some precious quotes.
“A book should be like a saucer of sweets, each chapter brightly wrapped and inviting in its own right” (Grut, 2018, p. 100).
Stranger. A lyrical observational vignette about an episode that feels oddly familiar and can be read in different ways.
Rich. This story contains the germ of a whole novel, full of fascinating characters (I loved Ashley), a compelling background and enlightening insights. It also has a great sense of time, place, and atmosphere. Its open ending can be discomforting to some readers, but I found it liberating.
There is a quote that particularly resonated with me:
“People equate emotion with weakness…” (Grut, 2018, p. 132).
Visitors. A vignette of small-town life in Wales, containing sharp observations about family relationships and motherly love.
On the Way to the Church. A possible life-changing revelation comes at the weirdest moment and explains many things.
Into the Valley. Having spent time in hospital with both of my parents in recent times, this story felt particularly touching and true to life. It records the last ten days in the life of a woman, spent in hospital, from the perspective of her daughter-in-law. The longest of the stories, it captures the feeling of numbness and routine that can take over one’s life in such circumstances.
“Night shift, day shift, back again to the night. We are far away from the world. We are in the Valley. Deep In” (Grut, 2018, p. 166-7).
There are characters with similar or the same names in different stories, and there are also typical corporate speech expressions which appear in separate stories, so as we read them we might find some similarities or links between the stories included, but as the end note explains, many of the stories have been published before, have received awards, and can, indeed, be read separately. I was impressed by the quality of the collection and this is an author I intend to keep a close eye on in the future.
Grut, V. (2018). Live show, drink included. Collected stories. London, UK: Holland Park Press.
Thanks to Holland Park Press and to the author for this wonderful book, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to like, share, comment, click, review, and always keep smiling!