Book review: Black Vodka

Black Vodka is my first book-on-subscription from awesome independent publisher And Other Stories. I was so excited to read this: first of all because there was something genuinely, kid-at-Christmas exciting about getting a random new book in the post! And such a beautiful book too: in the era of the ebook, I believe that the main thing that will save print books from extinction is if they are beautiful objects. And this book certainly is: distinctive jacket design, good quality paper, lovely binding, and (I know this is a nerdy thing to say, but…) a rather beautiful typeface too. The beauty of the object is not something that I often comment on in book reviews – I’m inclined to believe the contents are more important than the container – but in this case it felt worth mentioning.

As well as the excitement of my first subscription book (with my name in it!), I was really looking forward to reading something else by Deborah Levy. I read her Booker-nominated Swimming Home last year, and loved it. Although I did also love Bring up the Bodies, I still think Swimming Home should have won.

How does love change us? And how do we change ourselves for love – or for lack of it? Ten stories by acclaimed author Deborah Levy explore these delicate, impossible questions. In Vienna, an icy woman seduces a broken man; in London gardens, birds sing in computer start-up sounds; in ad-land, a sleek copywriter becomes a kind of shaman. These are twenty-first century lives dissected with razor-sharp humour and curiosity, stories about what it means to live and love, together and alone.

I’ve always had something of a love-hate relationship with short stories. A well-crafted short story can be wonderful to read, but I’ve read too many collections where the stories either left me frustrated that they didn’t go anywhere, or just with an overwhelming feeling of “meh…”. As a wannabe (but very bad!) writer, I’m also well aware of just how difficult they are to write! I’ve never managed to write any successful short fiction: I’ve never got the hang of telling a story in such a short space of time.

However, with the deceptively slim Swimming Home Levy proved she can pack a lot of story into very few words, so I had high hopes for this collection. And I was not disappointed! The stories in Black Vodka are marvellous creations: perfect shining little jewels of story, carefully sculpted with not a word wasted. They’re all very short – the perfect length to read a couple each way on my work commute, actually! – but benefit from careful reading and re-reading.

I don’t really want to talk about any of the actual stories: mainly because they’re all so wonderfully constructed, I’d a) feel like I was spoiling them, and b) wouldn’t really know how to sum them up without making them sound trite! I will mention a couple of my favourites: Cave Girl, an exploration of constructed femininity in which a boy’s sister suddenly reappears as a “pretend woman” (no, I can’t explain it any better than that – read it!); and the final story, A Better Way to Live, which is simply one of the most moving love stories I’ve ever read.

I’m completely in love with this book, and with Deborah Levy as a writer. Will have to end this review now, as I’m off to track down everything else she’s ever written 😉

Verdict: 5/5

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1 Comment

  1. Alex in Leeds

     /  February 23, 2013

    I’m not a Levy fan but I’m a fellow And Other Stories subscriber and yes, I did squeal just a little with glee when I finally saw my name in the back of an AOS book. It’s a wonderful publishing model to build up a little army of supporters and recommenders. 🙂


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