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Wednesday, October 5, 2022

You Have a Friend in 10A by Maggie Shipstead review – flawed lives fluently explored | Short stories

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“This book came out of years spent learning to be a writer, a process that will never be complete,” Maggie Shipstead writes in the acknowledgments of her first story collection, You Have a Friend in 10A. It may sound over-earnest – indeed, the whole section does – but with Shipstead there’s always a sharp layer of self-awareness just beneath the surface. In this case, it works as a knowing wink to the reader, since the second story in the book, Acknowledgements, is narrated by a solipsistic young male writer as he considers how best to use his novel’s acknowledgments to air long-held grievances against former mentors and women who’ve turned him down.

Shipstead’s third novel, the extraordinary historical epic Great Circle, was shortlisted last month for the Women’s prize, following on from her Booker shortlisting and giving the impression that she is something of an overnight success. But the stories in You Have a Friend in 10A chart the evolution over more than a decade of her unnerving ability to capture a character’s inner life in a few choice phrases and to pinpoint the unique collision of personality flaws that will trigger the story’s drama. In the most haunting piece here, Souterrain, she reverses cause and effect, moving backwards between present-day and wartime Paris to show how a careless remark or a small lie can have fatal consequences, the ripples of guilt and shame spreading through generations.

Many of the stories centre on sexual power dynamics, notably between younger women and older men. Shipstead anatomises these relationships with a cynical eye, highlighting their transactional nature. In Backcountry, a young woman recoils from an encounter with her lover’s abandoned ex-wife: “Ingrid resolved never to be so powerless. It did not occur to her that such resolutions are in vain, that the potential for destruction is built into love as fundamentally as into atoms of uranium.”

It’s a rare writer who can create a world as convincingly over a few pages as in a 600-page novel; Shipstead’s fluency in both forms is testament to the skill she modestly casts as a work in progress.

You Have a Friend in 10A by Maggie Shipstead is published by Doubleday (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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