To the point

9th May 2003 at 01:00
Diverse cultures can be vividly portrayed through short stories. Jan Mark reviews some collections

FLYING WITH ICARUS. By Curdella Forbes. Walker pound;4.99

OUT OF BOUNDS. By Beverley Naidoo. Heinemann New Windmills pound;5.99

BE YOURSELF. By Michelle Magorian. Egmont pound;4.99

FROM OUT OF THE SHADOWS. By Jamila Gavin. Egmont pound;4.99

Short-story writing is the most demanding form of prose, and the most consistently underestimated. According to successive education secretaries, all children can write short stories. In fact, few adults can write them. Most authors are novelists, needing the breadth and scope of a novel, as well as its length. They lack the pace and tight focus that makes the short story work.

In Flying with Icarus, Curdella Forbes displays the short-story writer's skills with an additional flair for precise, unadorned English, leavened by the lyrical economy of the Creole language. The seven stories here exploit their brevity, telling us just as much as we need to know. Set in Caribbean islands, they are vibrant, brightly lit glimpses of lives and memories, the work of an artist in absolute command of her medium.

Particularly cherishable is "Seashells", in which the police try to clean up a small town by rounding up the homeless and confused people who make the place untidy, sparking furious protests: "One lady had a placard that said, GIVE WE BACK WE MADPEOPLE. EVERYTHING YOU ALL SEE POOR PEOPLE HAVE, YOU WANT IT".

In the title story, Christorene, separated by an ocean from her diplomat father while he divorces, communicates with him in the language of his childhood, sometimes by telephone, sometimes telepathically through their imaginary conch shell. "Ill getting a vibe," says Dad, talking long-distance to his daughter. "I sense you kinda happy, something good happen to you today." Read the stories, get the vibe.

In his foreword to Beverley Naidoo's striking collection, Out of Bounds, now in a New Windmills edition, Archbishop Desmond Tutu writes of the apartheid regime: "(People) were demeaned and humiliated in a manner that is now difficult to imagine when almost no one in present-day South Africa admits that they ever supported such a vicious policy."

Covering the apartheid period (1948-2000), these are stories of ordinary people whose lives are disrupted or wrecked by racial classification, segregated schooling, pass laws, the ban on mixed marriages, protest and massacre.

The last two stories deal with the hesitant steps to recovery of a hideously injured nation.

The time line at the end gives a brief history of South Africa from 1948, identifying the stories with the political background.

The stories in Michelle Magorian's Be Yourself catch young teenagers at a moment when they redefine their own images as a result of taking a long hard look at other people. They are occasionally over-explanatory, leaving little to the reader's powers of inference, and the epistolary "Sorry!" is both indeterminate and interminable, but the book is essentially good-hearted and sympathetic to human foibles and failings in kids and adults.

Jamila Gavin is a writer whose natural home is the novel. From Out of the Shadows is a mixed bag, not altogether successful, comprising contemporary fiction and tales of the supernatural. Some of them go on a bit, others suffer from a multiplicity of viewpoints or a switch from third to first person narrative in a way that suggests that Gavin felt the need for more elbow room.

But "The Bridegroom" gets it just right: an Indian story of a daughter born disabled and disfigured, whose existence is an obstacle to the marriage of her beautiful younger sister, but who dreams of finding a magical bridegroom of her own - and at last he comes for her. Make of it what you will, it is a fine piece of story-telling.

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