‘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.
Although his novels have grown to embrace entire eras and communities (The Northern Clemency, set in Sheffield over two politically turbulent decades; King of the Badgers, digging below the politesse of a seaside town), Hensher has written short stories throughout his career, and their scale suits his deft way with