Tales of Persuasion – sombre studies of changing lives | Books

Given he spent so much time, energy and rigour editing the fabulous Penguin Book of the British Short Story Volumes I & II, there is something thrilling about the prospect of a selection of short stories from Philip Hensher himself. After all, his novels often function as a collection of minute snapshots of lives rather than grandstanding, sweeping epics – and it certainly feels as if Hensher is on fertile ground with Tales of Persuasion.

The 11 offerings are the result of 17 years of writing stories as they occurred to him – inspired by a news item such as Silvio Berlusconi doing community service in a care home (A Lemon Tree), or performing a writerly exercise in the vein of describing a first day at work (A Change in the Weather). The temptation in these circumstances is to pool a collection thematically, which here has its great pleasures and occasional problems.

The way so many of his characters grapple with change in their lives – either forced or desired – means the tone of hope and regret gathers pace and weight as the stories progress. As an alluring ex-actress tells her life story to an uneasy, unsure museum worker in My Dog Ian, she nails this combined sense of wonder, yearning and missed opportunity: “You never know what it’ll be, the big fact of your life.”

Hensher is expert at chronicling the intricacies of drab lives – although whether we need to know so much about the contents of school lunchboxes in The Midsummer Snowball is a moot point – which often results in his characters’ moment of clarity taking on a broodingly wry and realistic quality.

But this slightly sombre mood tends to make the stories merge into one another, even if they’re set in places as different as India, Italy and unnamed northern towns. Perhaps that’s the point – Hensher has said he wanted them to work together – but in these circumstances it’s the tales that feel distinct that really stand out. Under the Canopy, in which a terminally ill man is taken for a rare day out by his carer, has a horrific, nightmarish quality before its quiet, heartbreaking denouement.

It’s Hensher writ large: poignant without sentimentalising, acutely observant of the mores of the modern world, but profoundly interested in the timeless search for the meaning of life.

 Tales of Persuasion by Philip Hensher is published by Fourth Estate (£8.99). To order a copy for £7.19 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

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