Spectral shadows across the tamed gardens

Black Vodka

Black Vodka: Ten Stories
by Deborah Levy

I loved Levy’s novel Swimming Home, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize last year and Levy was the National Book Awards Author of the Year 2012, so I was pretty excited when I found out this would be the first book in my subscription to And Other Stories.

These are very modern short stories, zipping around different European locations and ethnicities, and incorporating modern technology reasonably well (which is something I basically never say, so kudos to Levy on that). But they’re not about story or location, they’re about emotions and characters and relationships.

“I was instructed in the art of Not Belonging from a very tender age. Deformed. Different. Strange. Go Ho-me Ali, Go Ho-me. In fact I was born in Southend-on-Sea, and so were those boys, but I was exiled to the Arabian Desert and not allowed to smoke with them behind the cockle sheds.”

Most of the stories might be better described as sketches or scenes, which I think I’ve also said about Haruki Murakami’s short stories and I loved both, and I do see some similarities. Both are modern and city-centric, and sometimes the central character can be a little mysterious and cold. But more often, Levy’s characters are warm and racked with emotion.

“At night the satellite dishes on the roofs and walls throw spectral shadows across the tamed gardens. I have grown to love the bronze doorknobs in the shape of jungle beasts: a lion’s head, a tiger, a snake…It gives me a thrill because I know the world is very old.”

Both the characters and the events tend to be oblique, not straightforward. As with Swimming Home there are subtleties at work that mean a few different things could be happening. Sometimes details or even names of characters overlap between stories. I wanted to re-read some of them right away.

My favourite is one of the shortest in the collection, “Placing a call”. It uses the second person and repetition and it’s immediately apparent that the narrator is unreliable. I also loved “Pillow talk”, which is at once a sweet love story and brutally honest.

My only tiny gripe would be that none of these stories is new, they have all been previously published, which smacks a little of cashing in on last year’s award wins, but on the other hand it gives us Levy newcomers a chance to discover more of her great work, and it has definitely solidified my interest in her writing.

Published February 2013 by And Other Stories.

Source: I am a subscriber to And Other Stories.