25th Sep 2012
Stepping Out by Cynthia Rogerson
The book is composed of thirty-three stories divided into seven sections, with the stories in each section linked either thematically, or by the recurring characters they feature.
The stories contained in Accident are populated by characters dealing (and not dealing) with life-altering moments outside of their control.
Rogerson has a knack of instantly drawing the reader into the world of her stories with her adept characterizations, but it is the unexpected details she expertly weaves through these narratives that really make the stories sing.
In A Dangerous Place, the image of her teenage son fixing the washing line in their new Californian home, a look of “proud manliness” on his face, takes on a greater significance for Sheila in the wake of a car crash.
In The Etiquette of Accidents three hill-walkers react in different ways to a crisis, with one noticing that time has been altered: “It’s become thick and glutinous and wrong. Like a movie scene with the soundtrack suddenly out of synch. The blue sky is wrong now too.”
Rubbish Day is the stand-out story in this section, a first-person narrative of a bewildered father, muddling through life, estranged from his teenage son and his wife.
Their fractious relationship is captured with pathos and a wonderful dose of wry humour: “I’m forty-five. An ancient sod, accuses Neal, as if this is my fault, and if I’d only been more careful I’d still be sixteen like him.”
Elisabeth contains six interlinked stories featuring the same character at different stages of girlhood. We first meet Elisabeth in The Bear when, aged six, she misses the comfort of her family on her first night away from them during a camping trip.
Throughout the stories that follow, Elisabeth navigates the world around her and takes the first steps towards independence and a life outside her family.
By the final story, Summer, we meet Elisabeth and her friend Debs at the age of fourteen. Debs’s mother claims the girls are a bad influence on each other, which “delights them”.
The simultaneous boredom and hopefulness of a long teenage summer is rendered beautifully: “All Summer they have felt surges of energy, followed by flatness, then saved again by great drenching waves of optimism.”
The marital discord that was hinted at in the Elisabeth stories is explored in further depth when the focus shifts to Elisabeth’s parents with four stories in the Jack and Mildred section.
Over the course of these two sections, Rogerson expertly captures the intricacies and complexities of these characters’ lives with small brush strokes. With each successive story, the reader gains further insight, which builds cumulatively to reveal a family portrait to great effect.
For me, the only bum note in this otherwise strong collection were the stories from the True Stories section, possibly because the thematic links between the individual stories was not as overt.
Like Singing, the story of a disenfranchised young mother whose preacher brother is attempting to indoctrinate her into his church, promises much in its set-up but doesn’t quite deliver with its slightly lacklustre ending.
Meanwhile, Belated Love Letter From a Famous Writer, although entertaining in its own way, lacks the gravitas of the other stories in the collection and feels somewhat out of place.
The stories in this collection span twenty years of the writer’s career. What they have in common is characters who are ordinary people, and yet are always compelling – and always authentic. There is much to be savoured in this varied and accomplished collection.
Recommended for: Fans of Alice Munro or Anne Tyler.
Máire T Robinson