Book of the week - Ten Stories About Smoking by Stuart Evers

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In this weekly book review slot, author Kester Aspden will pick out some of the most interesting new releases.

At a time when the traditional book is under threat from digital forms, Stuart Evers’ publishers have presented his debut collection of short stories in an enticing mock-up of a cigarette packet (though a debonair old–style pack, not one covered with dark health warnings). It’s a confident statement in the physical pleasure of a book. It’s like the sensation you used to get from an album.  You just want to toy with it before you listen.

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Ten Stories About Smoking would be a Smiths album – the first one.  It aches with longing, loneliness and thwarted hopes.  The settings have been updated.  Instead of Morrissey’s moody railways bridges and dirty canals, Evers gives us Swindon, ‘a business park that had got out of hand’; districts of grotty bedsitters and fried chicken shops; a pebbled-dashed terrace with a look of ‘horrific normality, a though beyond its anonymous façade bodies were buried’.

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The narrator of ‘Sometimes Nothing, Sometimes Everything’ finds a kind of solace in the ‘green beacon’ of a huge ASDA sign – the light that never goes out. Little dramas – failed attempts at connection – are played out ‘Between Currys and Sports Direct’.

Evers writes with empathy for his downbeat lives and with the understated precision of that American master of the short-story, Raymond Carver.  But his creations are saturated with a very English sensibility and humour (‘She had just broken up with her husband, a telemarketer from Oldham, and the emotion of it was still raw’).

Smoking means many things to different characters.  In ‘Things Seem So Far Away, Here’, cigarette smoke binds Linda to the dirty old life she wants to discard.  In ‘What’s in Swindon?’ smoking belongs to the carefree days of Marty’s youth, ‘a time when we didn’t need to worry about interest rates and love handles, pensions and cancer, stunted ambitions and broken dreams’.

This is a hugely impressive debut.  I don’t smoke, never have done, but maybe I’ll start.

Kester Aspden won the CWA Gold Dagger for non-fiction for his debut The Hounding of David Oluwale.  His next book, Broken English: Memoir of a Troubled Youth, is published by Simon Schuster in Spring 2012.

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