The saying goes that one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but it would seem wrong not to mention the design of Ten Stories About Smoking, which comes in a flip-top box that looks like a cigarette packet, with the cover of the volume itself as the ‘cigarettes’. It’s a brilliant piece of work that really enhances the reading experience, and I take my hat off to the designers, Two Associates.
Of course, as good as the design may be, what counts the most is the quality of the stories; I’m pleased to say that Stuart Evers has written a fine selection here. First, the title of the collection: all the stories feature smoking in some way, but often in the background, so the tales aren’t necessarily ‘about smoking’ in a literal sense—but Evers often gives smoking a metaphorical purpose in his stories, and they can be ‘about’ what smoking represents within them.
‘Things Seem So Far Away, Here’ is a good example of what I mean. Having received news from the doctor that effectively derails her life, Linda goes to visit her younger, more successful, brother Daniel, in the hope that she’ll be hired to look after her niece, Poppy. Evers doesn’t need to use description to evoke the difference between Daniel’s comfortable middle-class family life and Linda’s bedsit existence, because it’s there in the details that Linda observes, and the way that she knows how Daniel’s lifestyle works (on observing family photographs in the main room, Linda is aware that ‘should anything happen to her brother’s family, these were the photos that would be given to the television and the newspapers,’ p. 32). When Linda makes the comment that gives the story its title, she may be referring to the isolated rural location of Daniel’s house, but we also feel the distance between the siblings’ lives, because so little detail of Linda’s home life is given in comparison to that of Daniel’s family. Linda’s smoking habit comes to represent that distance, and the image of a smoke-tainted jumper symbolises how far it will remain.
Evers’ characters frequently find their plans and ambitions thwarted. Moore, the protagonist of ‘Some Great Project’ is looking for something to occupy his mind after the deaths of his parents, but nothing quite works until he starts cataloguing old family photos—which leads him to discover that he has a brother about whom he never knew. Moore travels to Spain in search of his brother, but it doesn’t work out how he imagined. In this story, smoking is a symbol of the lives that never were, as Moore’s brother lights the cigarettes of his fallen Falklands comrades; but the theme of lost opportunities is carried all the way through, from the opening scene of the teenage Moore being denied the chance to read his grandfather’s collection of adventure novels, to the ironic closing twist. ‘Some Great Project’ is a very elegantly constructed piece.
Sometimes in Ten Stories About Smoking, there’s a striking sense that the ‘real story’, as it were’ is going on elsewhere, yet the tales are no less satisfying for that. ‘Real Work’ depicts the gradual unravelling of the relationship between Ben and his artist girlfriend Cara; the two come from different worlds, and Ben gradually becomes disillusioned as he realises that he and Cara simply want different things from life. But it’s the subtle way Evers depicts the process of this which makes the story work so well; by the end, when Cara is exhibiting her new film, little may have changed on the surface, yet we know how much really has. Even more striking is ‘The Best Place in Town’, in which David Falmer, on a stag-party trip to Las Vegas, takes a walk through the city that acts as a kinetic way for him to come to terms with his discontents (also symbolised by the way Falmer begins the story smoking for the first time in thirteen years, and ends it admiring a magician doing tricks with cigarettes)—but the very last scene reveals that John, the bridegroom-to-be, has problems of his own, which have not been (and will not be) explored; and this creates an interesting effect when set against the completeness of Falmer’s story.
Perhaps the tale which is most directly concerned with smoking is the book’s closing piece, aptly titled ‘The Final Cigarette’. This concerns a dying man named Ray Peters, who is having what will probably be his last smoke. Two versions of this alternate: in one, Ray is American, and on his hotel balcony in Reno, two days after marrying a younger woman; in the other strand, Ray is British, waiting for the end in hospital, and being visited by his son, though his wife refuses to see him. The contrast between these two versions of reality is well-drawn and powerful, with the American strand (which I took to be imaginary) a vision of happiness and strength (given Ray’s situation, that is), with even the cigarette-smoking looking and feeling good. In the British reality (the ‘real’ reality, perhaps), however, Ray is slowly wasting away, his smoking comes across as a desperate comfort for a dying man, and his relations with those around him are not always cordial. ‘The Final Cigarette’ is a vivid portrait of the realities of life not living up to one’s dreams. That sums up what strikes me as the main theme of Stuart Evers collection –a book of ten fine stories which are about plenty more than just smoking.
Read ‘Some Great Project (Litro) and ‘What’s in Swindon?‘ (Scarecrow) from the collection.
Stuart Evers’ blog
Booktrust interview with Evers
Some other reviews of Ten Stories About Smoking: James Doyle for Bookmunch; Just William’s Luck; Leyla Sanai for The Independent; Alex Preston for New Statesman.