Total by Rebecca Miller review – emotionally complex stories

“What a weird thing reading is,” reflects Joad, the protagonist of Rebecca Miller’s short story, I Want You to Know. Joad’s marvelling arises less from a sense of wonderment than menace. She and her partner have left behind their city lives to become blogging smallholders. Upon discovering an old desk in the attic, she takes a “before” photo and sets about stripping it down, inadvertently unlocking a secret drawer in which lie sheets of onionskin paper that tell a terrible tale.

“Joad felt as though reading the typed pages had infected her with a virus that she had to carry around now, nasty images downloaded into her head,” Miller writes. Where I Want You to Know really expands on the twisty delight of reading, however, is in its closing pivot, a turn that at once defuses this specific threat and underscores the form’s wonderfully insidious ability to unnerve.

I Want You to Know appears in the film-maker and novelist’s new collection, her second, alongside half a dozen similarly expert short works. Each deftly evokes a recognisable social milieu – often privileged, though not always wealthy, east coast America – as well as an array of life stages, from the 14-year-old girl, young for her age, whose body has suddenly become an 18-year-old’s in The Chekhovians, to She Came to Me’s blocked middle-aged author – the book’s lone male protagonist – whose marriage of nearly 20 years has reached the point where his wife lands “faintly accusatory, percussive kisses on his head at breakfast”.

Intimacy’s tugs and minor revulsions, its drug-like intensity and unravelling confusions, filter through these pages, and they’re made overt in Vapors. An account of the romantic chaos of heroine Justine’s younger years, it finds Miller noting of one particular relationship: “They fought with the clean, absolute rage of siblings, pulverising their sex life while ballooning their mutual affection to a point where they seemed destined to be together.”

Wit and coolly slaying wisdom are constant delights in these emotionally complex stories. Nor is the intimacy that Miller conjures always sexual. The maternal bond recurs, exemplifying both unrivalled connection and chafing confinement. The title story, for instance, may be a lightly dystopian slice of sci-fi, but in recounting what happens when teenage Roxanne misguidedly abducts her sister – one of a small global population of ethereal children badly damaged in utero by their mothers’ exposure to a fiendishly expensive new phone – it becomes a slyly incisive meditation on the mother-daughter dynamic.

Most authors, especially the better ones, have a fairly conflicted relationship with their craft, but Miller’s stories read as though they’ve been written by someone who takes immense pleasure in their creation. Line by line, they’re cinematically vivid, and she isn’t afraid to make things happen either. Just take the opening story, Mrs Covet, whose dreamy interiority is interrupted by an alarming event.

If some of these characters feel like established literary types, that seems integral to the playfulness and profundity of the narratives in which Miller embeds them, lulling us along in order to accentuate the swerve that lies in wait. What does she want us to know? Perhaps simply that reading should always feel electrifyingly weird.

  • Total by Rebecca Miller is published by Canongate (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

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