In Cranach’s celebrated study of Aphrodite and Eros, now hanging in the National Gallery, the Goddess of Love, apparently wearing nothing but a fur hat of Ascot-style proportions, turns her knowing smile and size zero body winsomely to the viewer.
That painting provides both the title for one of the finest stories in Salley Vickers’s first collection and a clue to many of the collection’s central concerns. In “The Hawthorn Madonna”, Ewan and Elspeth’s marriage, the only happy one in the entire collection, is strengthened by an annunciation beside the eponymous statue.
In “The Dragon’s Bones”, a somewhat conventional tale of Venetian adultery is deepened by a theological debate in a 12th-century Murano church. In “The Green Bus from St Ives”, an older married man meets a free-spirited young artist beside a Ben Nicholson drawing. “The Buried Life”, at once the longest and strongest of the stories, is both literally and figuratively interlaced with lines from a Matthew Arnold poem.
Although a couple of the stories are duds and a couple more are predictable in their unpredictability, the collection is shot through with a gentle wit and a winning charm.