The situations here at first seem refreshingly ordinary. One Claire is a librarian, who goes to Amsterdam to take a break from caring for her mother; one grows up in a B&B and another helps her mother in a care home. What makes the stories extraordinary is the precision of the observation. Leviston’s eye sharpens these everyday middle-class settings until they feel charged with blazing light. Sometimes she’s constructing an artful image, as when Claire the librarian feels she has fashioned her role “like one of those birds who build their nests out of shreds of old carrier bags”, and sometimes she’s just noticing things about people. One Claire has a grown-up brother who frames his Lord of the Rings poster: “That was what growing up meant to Callum. You didn’t put away your childish things – you just paid to get them framed.”
Leviston occasionally spells out her meanings (we go from the sight of tulips in a Haarlem park to “Claire is like that somehow: tulip-shaped. The opening of her, the interface, is tiny, tiny, the interior surprisingly large”). More often, however, her stories generate significant power from their avoidance of forced effects, alongside their psychological acuity. You can feel the subtext pulse between the lines and occasionally, thrillingly, it surges onto the page.
The Voice in My Ear is at its best when it neatly captures the knotty, guilty dynamics that can proliferate in families. Claire in “Broderie Anglais” finds herself “obscurely angry” with her mother for persistently offering to sew her dress for her: when Claire capitulates, and her mother runs it up a size too big, it is crushing. The reasons why these characters become so uncomfortably entangled with one another might remain obscure, but the emotional impact of such relationships are, in Leviston’s hands, devastatingly, thrillingly clear.
Frances Leviston’s debut work of fiction positively knocked my socks off. Each of the 10 stories in The Voice in My Ear is about a different woman called Claire — an apt appellation for characters illuminating aspects of modern life. “Broderie Anglaise”, which was shortlisted for the 2015 BBC Short Story Award, explores the relationship between a “boomerang kid” and her mother. Living at home after three years away, Claire sets out to sew a dress in secret to wear to her cousin’s wedding. She fantasises about upstaging the bride, choosing fabric in a pale blue that “would make any off-whites or creams placed beside it look like old dentures in a water glass”.