PROVENANCE : NEW & COLLECTED STORIES
By David Belbin
Shoestring Press. 176 pages. £12.99. ISBN 978-1-910323-57-1
Reviewed by Jim Burns
At the beginning of a story called “Multistorey,” the narrator, a woman, wonders why her partner, Brian, “still acts like a nervous teenager on his first date, trying to make clever conversation all the time. It’s tiring. Why do men do this stuff?”
It’s an amusing start to what some might be tempted to think is a somewhat inconsequential piece as the couple bicker about pop music while they make their way to the cinema. It’s Brian who is setting the pace, choosing the film they are to see and insisting on talking about the director and his previous films. The woman isn’t really interested. As she says, “I don’t like to discuss films analytically.” But she does have thoughts about the relationship between life and art, and questions the assumption that a “suspension of disbelief” comes into play when watching a film: “Life is what you have to suspend your disbelief in, pretend to accept. A good film forces you to believe in its own reality.”
They have time before the film starts, so go into a pub where Brian sees someone he clearly doesn’t want to acknowledge. The woman is curious and needs to know why Brian is embarrassed and anxious to get out of the pub. She doesn’t receive an answer. They go to the film and she leaves early to collect their car from the carpark before it closes. When she picks up Brian he asks if she wants to know how the film ended, but she tells him, and thinks, “In films like that, the woman is always punished.”
I remember, many years ago, a writer being asked if you could have a story taking place in a railway carriage, and replying, “Yes, if there’s a bomb underneath the seat.” And it strikes me that there is a bomb, of sorts, in David Belbin’s story. It’s in the form of the relationship between the people involved and likely to explode at any time. Or so it seemed to me as I read the story.
There are other stories about how men and women interact. A woman attending an art appreciation class meets an older man and forms a relationship with him largely built around buying paintings on e-bay. He eventually abruptly ends their affair and when she meets him some time later he’s been married and his new wife has discovered that the paintings were forgeries. A university lecturer goes with a young prostitute and discovers that, by a bizarre twist of fate, she’s his daughter by someone he slept with in the Seventies. A pop musician recalls meeting Picasso and thinks he has something that the artist drew for him. A meeting with his ex-wife turns up the information that Picasso did indeed scrawl a simple sketch on a piece of paper, but that the wife later just copied it and sold the original. A politician meets his ex-wife and helps her, which leads to an inevitable getting together once more. It’s interesting that several of the stories revolve around people coming and going, losing touch, encountering each other again, and perhaps, or not, forming new relationships. It’s the way things are in twenty-first century society.
There’s a good story about two poets who were friends, but fell out ( “Poets, in Simone’s experience, were more critical of each other, more backbiting than any other group; including academics, who were bad enough.") and then meet up years later. It’s full of asides that might bring a nod of recognition from others involved in the literary game: “Writers had times in their lives when they mattered, Tom had come to realise. Five years if you were lucky. A decade was good going. University Creative Writing courses were full of tutors who’d had their heady moments of being new and reviewed everywhere. Then the attention moved on. Some writers never got over this.” And there are disillusioned and disgruntled comments from one of the poets about no-one bothering to read contemporary poetry these days. While the poets warily re-establish their relationship, their wives, seemingly much more at ease with seeing each other, busily catch up on what has happened in the intervening years.
There are what might be called starker stories which comment on current social problems. One is about child abuse in a so-called satanic cult, another concerns a young Asian boy who is bullied at school, gets involved with a gang of drug dealers, and slides into addiction himself. And a third is about a young boy picked up by the security services in an unnamed foreign country, and interrogated and tortured for some unspecified offences against the state. It has a Kafkaesque quality.
I enjoyed reading the stories in Provenance. They’re tightly written and don’t waste words. Most of them are set in Nottingham and readers familiar with the city might recognise some of the places referred to. But that’s not a problem for those who haven’t visited it. Belbin makes the local easily transferable to the general, human nature, and especially the relationships between men and women, men and men, and women and other women, being what it is in a wide context. Belbin’s skill at dealing with the complexities of relationships, and often suggesting the tensions and undercurrents beneath what might appear to be ordinary surfaces, is what makes the stories so readable.