Review: As You Step Outside by VG LeeAs You Step Outside
Published by Tollington Press
Reviewed by John Dixon
Does VG Lee use a spin-drier? She prefers pegs. She hooks her stories round titles of films (Love me or leave me) and popular songs (Holding out for a Hero). Her last novel was Diary of a Provincial Lesbian, a variant on E M Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady. She highlights characters by odd names – a dog called Him. She foists names onto peripheral characters The Blazer, Mister Bullet Head, Mister In-your-face Intrusive. In Putty, set in a funeral parlour, only when the aunt refers to her deceased sister by her first name, Dot, does the narrator, the deceased’s daughter, show emotion. In A Slice of Melon a key phrase is tagged in the opening paragraph.
When Kelly said, “Fancy a shag?” Laura replied, “Don’t mind if I do,” which seemed to satisfy Kelly, although Laura wasn’t too happy with her own choice of words. Don’t mind if I do was what Norma Next Door said to offers of tea, cake, Pringles, and Bacardi and Coke. Fortunately Kelly didn’t know Norma Next Door.
In three sentences we have situation, two characters, an alliterative name for the neighbour, brand names to give an everyday setting, and a nagging at a key phrase. And despite the ‘chatty’ tone the story is in the third person!
The non-heroic tone reads well, more so aloud, and Lee is an accomplished performer. Take this paragraph; read it out deadpan and dry.
The previous week when I’d been at a celebration for the Chinese New Year, a reliable source told me that, as an Ox, I was a possible leader of men – or in my case women. I’d asked after Joan and she was a Rabbit, pleasant but not a leader of anybody. Pat was a snake. No surprises there.
There are twenty stories in this collection, maximum sixteen pages, the earliest story dating from1992. They fall into two not-mutually-exclusive groups – amusing and observant – and dark, descriptive and bordering on the unhinged. The title of the collection is a quote from one of the stories. Recently I read an article about gardens needing to be places of excitement where your heart rate speeds up a beat or two as you step outside.
Gardens feature a lot. The lighter stories repeat items such as mirrors ( Forever Argos; Unknown Woman) pimples (Fit; Life on the Slow Train) and girls’ nights out (Fit; Holding out for a Hero). The sinister stories feature graveyards, old churches and lawn maintenance. They are in the first person, confessional, often acknowledging heartlessness. You always were a cold fish (Love me or Leave me). I am a hard unsentimental woman (Behind Glass). I’m a coward . . . Push a coward even an inch farther than their fears will sustain them, and be careful (Passing Guest).
Love is repeatedly denied. In Behind Glass, the mother confesses she sees her daughter in the cruellest way with all the closeness of motherhood without the bias of love. In Maria’s Mother - This is mine and Maria’s story. Unfortunately not a romance. In Passing Guest - This is no love story. In Love me or Leave me - I’m concerned that my story is setting up the expectation of a love affair.
These darker disturbing stories are a new side of Lee’s writing. They can only enhance her reputation. They are not perhaps – in the way the amusing stories decidedly are - material for public performance. We should be therefore grateful they are now available in one volume.
The publisher is the recently-established Tollington Press. It’s the first item on their list. Not a bad debut!
John Dixon has had several poems and short stories published, including in Chroma. He has won a prize in the Bridport Short Story competition, and was editor/contributor to Fiction in Libraries. He is a member of the Gay Author’s Workshop and is on the editorial board of and contributor to the forthcoming GAW short story anthology ‘People my mother warned you about.’ He hopes shortly to have his novel ‘Push harder Mummy, I want to come out’ published by Paradise Press. He has read his work at launches and several local LGTB events.