It’s about time, really, that I reviewed some short stories. After all, I am a massive fan of the short story, and it is to my mind a bit of a neglected form. Admittedly there are lots of brilliant online and in-print literary magazines publishing short stories, but most book shops don’t stock many collections of short stories, much to my sorrow (and not only because I write a lot of short stories myself). It’s just a lovely form. I am (in general, and in a completely and utterly subjective way) more fond of prose than poetry, but short stories, especially flash fiction, are sort of a perfect in-between point for the novel and the poem. Short stories have the concise power of poetry but the style and characterisation which I so love about novels. When you have less words there is, naturally I think, more of a focus on the words themselves than in a longer work. I love short stories that are snapshots, sketches, that imply so much more beyond the read words. I like that as a form they’re more suited to being read aloud than novels. I think I just like the idea that you can fit a whole story, the whole impact of a longer story, into such a small space. It’s beautiful.
So it seems about time that, eight months into this blog (well that’s scary) I should review a collection of short stories. And as we’re just into 2015 (also scary), I thought I’d start with the assembled Best British Short Stories 2014, edited by Nicholas Royle, featuring stories by Jonathan Gibbs, Jay Griffiths, Richard Knight, Vicki Jarrett, M John Harrison, Sian Melangell Dafydd, David Grubb, Anna Metcalfe, David Constantine, Louisa Palfreyman, Stuart Evers, Elizabeth Baines, Mick Scully, Ailsa Cox, Christopher Priest, Joanna Walsh, Adam Wilmington, Claire Dean, Joanne Rush and Philip Langeskov. Unsurprisingly I’m not going to attempt to review every short story in the collection, or I’d be here until a week on Tuesday, but I will write a little about each of my favourites, and my not-so favourites.
Much I love the short story as a form, I’m ready to admit that I’m a bit more picky about my short stories than my novels. Because I’m the sort of person who just really really loves books, I can find good things to say about most novels. Even if I think a book is poorly written, I can usually find something good to say about one bit of the plot or there’ll be a character I liked – or the other way around. An atrocious plot line, but oh what superb similes. That sort of thing. With short stories though, where there’s less time to get involved and less to attach to, I generally find myself either completely loving a short or being somewhat bemused by it.
There was several stories in the collection that I didn’t really get much out of at all (for example, Gibbs’s ‘The Faber Book of Adultery’ or Harrison’s ‘Getting Out of There’). I can’t say whether they were good or bad stories but they certainly weren’t stories for me. I obviously missed the point somewhere along the way, where someone else would have got it. But what I like about collaborative collections / anthologies of short stories like this one is that if one story doesn’t appeal to you, you simply move onto the next one.
I think short stories more than novels have the power to be truly unsettling, because most novels have some form of resolution, or at least have some change in tone over the novel. Short stories tend to effect you in less of a multitude of ways, but in one way more intensely. I suppose that’s just the thing about short stories: because they are in essence short, they are in essence intense. I like that. There’s something very disturbing about Scully’s ‘The Sea of Birmingham’. I didn’t like the story, certainly, but I don’t suppose it was written to be liked. I can’t decide whether I think it’s good or not. I feel the same about Knight’s ‘The Incalculable Weight of Water’, and Wilmington’s ‘It’. They’re disturbing, unsettling stories, stories with a strong impact that I won’t be able to forget in a hurry. So I suppose in that sense I’m impressed, and I certainly understand why these stories appeared in the collection, even if they’re not exactly my cup of tea.
And then, while we’re on unsettling stories, there was Palfreyman’s ‘The Jewel of the Orient’, to which my main reaction was, what?! I have no idea what happened here... It was creepy, weird, and entirely bemusing – not in a fascinating way so much as simply in a weird way. Plus I have a phobia of fish, which probably didn’t help in my appreciation of this story, seeing is it involved a lot of fish. On finishing this short story I felt a little as I felt when finishing Will Self’s Umbrella: not such if I was foolish for not understanding it, or if I was foolish for having bothered to read it. Anyway, I just absolutely did not get this story.
But beyond the unsettling stories and the stories I got little out of, there were some brilliant pieces in this collection. I’m impressed by the clever use of second person in Dafydd’s ‘Hospital Field’ and in Walshes’s ‘Femme Maison’ (which, it is worth mentioning, is also unsettling, in a good way). ‘The Spiral Stairwell’, by Griffiths, is simply lovely, and I like Metclafe’s sad examination of different cultures and expectations in ‘Number Three’; it’s simple, subtle, and really moving.
And then there are my four favourite stories in the collection. I love Elizabeth Baines’s ‘Tides, or How Stories Do or Don’t Get Told’. In part I love it because I like self-reflective writing, because it’s clever, because it’s in part about writing, about telling stories. But it’s also just a beautiful, moving story, a story about the lack of story almost. It’s brilliant.
‘Guests’, by Joanne Rush, was another enigmatic gem. When the narrator’s husband travels to Bosnia for work, she finds her flat slowly filling up with mysterious ‘guests’, the ghosts of the Bosnian war. It’s a moving and unsettling story, lifted by brilliant writing.
One of my other favourite stories was David Constantine’s ‘Ashton and Elaine’. It’s the only short story I was fascinated enough by to go out and buy the collection it was from (and not just because I realised half way through that there was something very Brontë-esque about it). It’s from a new collection of short stories inspired by the Brontë sisters, Red Room, edited A. J. Ashworth, which I think I’ll review next week, because I love nineteenth century literature, and I greatly enjoy seeing it twisted into new shapes – so long as it’s done well. I’ll say more about this story next week then.
But perhaps my favourite of all was Philip Langeskov’s ‘Barcelona’. I actually read this collection a few months ago, and it’s this story that has stuck with me perhaps the most. I was genuinely on my seat for all its thirty-eight pages. I always (probably too much) judge works of literature by their endings, and with short stories there is no exception. The ending of ‘Barcelona’ was superb, dramatic – everything a great ending should be. I kept on thinking it was going to be something it wasn’t, and it kept tricking me. It’s a truly brilliant story. I also particularly enjoyed the intertextuality, the story’s comments on the ambiguity of short stories. It seemed a perfect story to end the collection on.
Favourite Story (Ooh look a different format. How strange.): For me, Philip Langeskov’s ‘Barcelona’
Least Favourite Story: This seems a little mean, but for me, the weakest story was Palfreyman’s ‘The Jewel of the Orient’. It might be very clever (who knows), but I just absolutely didn’t get it one bit.
Let’s finish on a quote: We joined hands in the dark, in the oncoming rush of all the possible stories.
(From Elizabeth Baines, ‘Tides, Or How Stories Do or Don’t Get Told’)
Next week: Red Room: New Short Stories Inspired by the Brontës, edited and compiled by A. J. Ashworth (because who doesn’t love the Brontës?)