‘Some people are always on stage,’ notes a narrator of one of Philip Hensher’s entertainingly varied stories. ‘Most are destined always to be in the audience.’ The trick, it seems, is working out which you are: the unnamed character comes belatedly to realise he ‘would always be in row F of the stalls, hands clasped, looking up as the lights pointed in a different direction, allowing myself to be persuaded’.
The collection’s title, echoing Persuasion, might hint at Austenesque comedy: harsh judgement, quiet pain, late-flowering romance. Some of this is true of the arch opening story, ‘Eduardo’, in which the protagonist, Fitzgerald, envies his neighbour’s delicious new Argentinian boyfriend, a musky beauty. He himself has a house guest, a grasping workshy white girl from Kenya confoundingly called Timothy: Fitzgerald had allowed himself to imagine a fashion-struck youth, ‘a thin black boy, sitting up at night, making ruffles’. His seduction of Eduardo seems doomed, foundering on social humiliation and wallowing remorse.