Fabulous by Lucy Hughes-Hallett review – short stories lost in the myths

Too much whimsy and garbled storytelling mar this collection based on the classics

Lucy Hughes-Hallett is the author of three nonfiction books, one of which, The Pike, a biography of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, won both the Samuel Johnson prize and the Costa prize for biography in 2013. Two years ago, at the age of 65, she wrote her first novel, Peculiar Ground, set in a posh Oxfordshire country house, based on the Cornbury estate where she grew up. At the time of publication, she gave an interview to the Guardian in which she said she didn’t understand why novelists were so revered: “what they do is easy compared with nonfiction”, she said. A strange thing to admit – especially given that Hughes-Hallett’s husband, Dan Franklin, the associate publisher at Jonathan Cape, has built his career on the back of fiction writers.

But now that Hughes-Hallett has published her first collection of short stories, I wonder if she still stands by that opinion. Fabulous – as in “fantastical” rather than “Fabulous, Darling!” presumably – comprises eight retellings of Graeco-Roman myths, Bible stories and fairytales, set in a contemporary Britain of flashy estate agents, economic migrants and camp antiques dealers. The publishers compare it to Angela Carter’s 1979 book, The Bloody Chamber, a subversive reworking of European folk tales that combined postmodern self-awareness with an otherworldly darkness. But Fabulous is quite unlike anything I’ve ever read. And not in a fabulous way either.

All eight tales demonstrate a peculiar anti-knack for storytelling. Hughes-Hallett blithely disregards the who, what, why and when of convention in favour of a scattershot approach that proceeds by whimsy and garbled in-jokes. In the opener, Orpheus or Oz, a middle-aged counter-tenor loses his wife, Eurydice, when she’s walking in the park and gets swallowed up by “a terrible arm” that drags her into the underworld. For a while her body remains in an NHS ward and Oz tries to wake her from a coma by belting out Monteverdi. But it’s hard to tell whether Eurydice has fallen into the “rocky innards of the earth” or just had a nasty fall, or if this is all a symptom of Oz’s dementia – a notion introduced late in the story.

The idea of an underworld is also fudged in the tale of Psyche and Cupid (renamed Crispin), in which the heroine is recast as a beautiful librarian and the figure of Venus becomes a group of braying lads, who lock her in a pump room where she is “all-but-raped” – though soon she’s making out with Crispin in the dark amid pelts of tiger skin and bowls of dried apricots. “And so it all fell out as it always does in this story,” Hughes-Hallett writes, skipping past the tricky details like a Tory leadership candidate pushed to explain a trade deal.

The tone of posh larkiness is not helped by the fact Hughes-Hallett retains the ancient names like Eurydice, Psyche and Tristan. Rather than connecting you with the myths and folk tales, it makes you think of the Telegraph births columns. Modern Britain is rendered in broad brushstrokes, the happy-hour cocktails and spaniels carried in handbags doing little to make these tales feel relevant. There is nothing, for example, about the nouveau riche estate agents in the story Actaeon that rings remotely true, and the climax is so implausible and unearned that you can’t help but laugh. Meanwhile, the tale of a pest controller called Piper who banishes the town’s rats by blasting out D’Oyly Carte hits from his van trivialises paedophilia.

Hughes-Hallett can’t decide whether to treat the otherworldly elements literally, metaphorically or a bit of both. (Who cares? It’s fiction – just make it up!) The writing is so drunk on its own capriciousness, it’s difficult to pick out any unifying themes, except for perhaps the randomness of life. For random is what these stories are. It does no one any favours (not least Angela Carter) to pretend otherwise.

• Fabulous by Lucy Hughes-Hallett is published by 4th Estate (£12.99). To order a copy to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99


Johanna Thomas-Corr

The GuardianTramp

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