Black Vodka

Deborah Levy

Published by And Other Stories 26 February 2013

125 pp, paperback, £12

Reviewed by Charlotte Moore

Reading these ten short stories is a bit like speed-dating. Each time, the reader is asked to piece together information about the central character from clues that are quickly dropped, details that flash obliquely by. Much is revealed by what the characters don’t say.

Levy’s world is modern, urban, multicultural. The protagonists, most of them handsome and youngish, seem rootless, fragile, unstable; they carry most of their belongings with them, and pain, or the memory of pain, forms the heaviest part of their luggage.

All the stories are about love, its possibility and its impossibility. Most are told in the present tense, several in the first person. Few have a plot. They describe encounters which pulsate with unexpressed meaning, impressions quickly formed that may change the course of an entire life.

As with speed-dating (I imagine – I’ve never done it!), some of the stories strike home powerfully, others slip away without making much impact. I was taken with the hump-backed, thin-skinned Ali in the title story, who has ‘an incredible facility to wade through human shame with no shoes on’, and who loves the way rain ‘heightens every gesture’.  I felt for the anonymous, eczematic protagonist of ‘Vienna’ whose hands will itch for ever because he has left his children. I wasn’t very interested in Alice, who loses her luggage at Prague airport; this one was so elliptical that it passed me by. ‘Cave Girl’, which is about cosmetic surgery, is too contrived.

And so on. Either you respond to these glimpses of interior lives, or you don’t. But Deborah Levy is certainly an intelligent writer with an eye for delicate detail, and an interesting way of handling the relationship between her readers and her prose.

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