8 NOVEMBER 2008, Page 49

Tales of the unexpected

Cressida Connolly

THE ATMOSPHERIC RAILWAY: NEW AND SELECTED STORIES by Shena Mackay Cape, £17.99, pp. 423, ISBN 9780224072984 ✆ £14.39 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655 In Waterstones bookshops there are li ttle signs dotted among the fiction shelves, to prompt readers towards new purchases. The signs suggest that if you liked, say, Evelyn Waugh you’d also enjoy Nancy Mitford; or if Ruth Rendell is a favourite you might like to try Barbara Vine. Where the books of Shena Mackay are concerned, however, there could be no such proposition, because her work is quite unlike anyone else’s. Mackay has a slavish and devoted following: Julie Burchill has called her the world’s greatest living writer.

So a new book from Shena Mackay is cause for celebration. Equally at home in the novel and short story forms, her work is often set in the southern suburbs of London or in fading seaside towns: ‘There was a smell of chips in the air and the sky was like the inside of a mussel shell above the ribbed sand squiggled with wormcasts and the flat silver sea.’ Her characters have names like Neville and Beryl. They listen to The Archers on the radio, pop to the shops, have pet cats or retired greyhounds or a budgerigar. Everything is pervaded with a gentle melancholy, like mild homesickness, but it’s also very funny. A shoplifter might be a grandmother on a shopmobility scooter bearing a ‘World’s Best Nan’ sticker. A crumbling block of 1920s flats called Balmoral Court has two letters missing, so a character looking up her first love now finds his address is 13 A MORAL COURT.

Mackay is brilliant at deadpan:

Martin was wearing a black waistcoat unbuttoned over a dark grey flannel shirt with a yellow tie, graphite coloured cords and black suede boots. He looked like what he was, an amateur jazz musician.

An eccentric but spirited woman called Dolly starts a pirate radio station, broadcast from her own caravan. Listeners send her things, including cuttlefish for her budgie:

‘I’m only sending this ironically’, one of them had written. Dolly was flattered; she knew that students do everything ironically these days; watch kids’ TV, eat Pot Noodles.

In the title story:

Cousin Beryl lived in an area of Dulwich transformed from the quiet suburb of her childhood into a place of cookware shops, cafés, organic butchers, with a number of junk and antiques shops, where the new, affluent population could buy the amusing old furniture and kitchenware which had belonged to the previous owners of their houses, and put it back.

About a quarter of The Atmospheric Railway consists of 13 new short stories. These reveal Mackay’s gifts to be at their peak. One, called ‘Windfalls’, contains in its ten pages as much heartache, comic absurdity and observational genius as a full-length film by Mike Leigh. I was smiling at this simple story, about a recently widowed man collecting his grandchildren from school while their parents are at work, when a choking sob rose unbidden from my throat. Shena Mackay can do this to a reader. You think you’re reading a light farce about a bossy medical receptionist, then abruptly she turns the story into a contemporary version of Brief Encounter and fat tears are plopping onto the page.

A couple of cavils. I didn’t like the surrealist whimsy with which some of the new stories are concluded. When you are as good at depicting real life as this writer, fantasy is extraneous. And it seems perverse of the publisher to commence with the new material but then, without any textual break, segue into her oldest stories, so that the more recent appear towards the book’s end: surely it would have made more sense to give the dates and collections from which the stories are taken and print the whole either chronologically or in reverse, not a bit of both. Nevertheless, The Atmospheric Railway deserves a fanfare. Shena Mackay is nothing short of a national treasure. ❑