Black Vodka, by Deborah Levy

Review published on April 12, 2013.Reviewed by Jennie Blake

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[product sku=”9781908276162″]Black Vodka, Deborah Levy’s slim collection of ten short stories evokes an obscured and hazy path between openness and secrets, between love and betrayal, and between strangers, lovers, and old friends. Each of the ten stories tells an often ambiguous tale of the shockwaves that love can send through a life and of the impossibility of defining what happens between two people.

The collection begins with one of the longer stories, and the one that gives the volume its name, Black Vodka. This story is as much about the promise of love, and the chaos that that vision can bring, as it is about love itself. It centres round a man seemingly unlikely for the position of a lover, an advertising executive with a dry turn of phrase and a hunchback. But he meets a colleague’s girlfriend and a vodka-fueled dinner triggers a series of dreams that evoke not love but loneliness.

Levy’s spare and sharp prose slices through what might, in other hands, be maudlin or vague emotions. Here, though, the dream world and the real world are equally sharp, and even momentary visions of wolves, mushrooms and a forest feel truly present, momentary interruptions by a less mundane reality. These brilliant moments do not so much intrude on the story as run underneath it, a river of imagery sparking beneath the quiet of the stories themselves.

Levy’s characters are as aware of the richness around them and the impossibility of capturing it as their author:

There is so much of the world to record and classify, it’s hard to know how to find a language for it. So I am going to start exactly where I am now.Life is beautiful! Vodka is black! Pears are naked! Rain is horizontal! Moths are ghosts. Only some of this is true, but you should know that this does not scare me as much as the promise of love.

Each of the stories, although direct links are few, feels as if it exists in quiet concert with the rest. A sense of the slippery nature of emotion, of the depth and terror of love, of the reach of the unknown that resides in others, weaves into a set of narratives that sparkle with life but acknowledge the dragging currents that draw our attention to subtext and subterranean worlds. Levy’s writing takes no shortcuts and sets few limits on the imaginations of her readers, characters shift and blend, their physical representations affected by our awareness of inner gymnastics.

Short story collections have a different flavour to a novel and can feel more like vignettes than plots and characters that go on living beyond the page, but Black Vodka’s stories, characters and settings live and breathe beyond the last page detailing their lives. Somewhere, there is a man turning selling vodka into an art, there is a woman in a blue dress, there are people falling in love and discovering how little love reveals about those they meet. Somewhere, these stories live on, testament to the vivid prose and razor sharp structure of Levy’s writing.


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