To get you into the swing of reading for the new year, here is a special feature: A Festival of Short Stories, reviewed by Kathleen Jones
About a month or so ago it was National Short Story week, but I was so busy reading I didn’t manage to get a review up in time! For a writer, the short story is a tricky form to tackle; there’s absolutely no room for error. In a novel you can wander about a bit without the reader noticing too much, but in a short story you can’t waggle a toe without being found out. When I was a teenager I used to read stories a lot – can still remember the shock and awe of reading James Joyce’s The Dead, Scott Fitzgerald’s Bernice Bobs her Hair, Katherine Mansfield’s The Aloe. Later I read Patricia Highsmith, Alice Munro, Angela Carter and then more recently Helen Dunmore, David Malouf, Ali Smith, and Raymond Carver.
There’s less of a market now for short stories. Many periodicals have given up including them and publishers don’t want them because they don’t make enough money. The cult of the novel has somehow swept them off the main road onto the literary verge. But they still seem to me to be exciting. It’s a form you can play with, between the poem and the novel – a vehicle for an image, or a small idea. They can be impressionistic, poetic, cold and hard as a knife, as oral as a play, as introspective as memoir, as vernacular as a street conversation.
When I taught creative writing we were expected to provide a formula for their construction – the opening had to have a hook, a bold beginning, there was no room for ‘telling’, no room for too many characters or more than one point of view. The characters must experience a shift and there must be a distinct coda at the end. I hated it! Good advice perhaps, as a guide for novices, just starting to explore narrative technique, but how restrictive! You’ve only got to read some of the contemporary tales spanning the world to discover what a good writer can get away with. Writers like the Austrian Alois Hotschnig whose stories remind me of Kafka, or the experimental US writer Stephen Dixon who can make a story out of a monosyllabic telephone conversation.
If Indie publishing has done anything, it’s freed writers from the constraints imposed by publishing and by the creative writing factory that is beginning to dominate the US and the UK. All over the e-book jungle, short stories are being taken out of cupboards and boxes and popped onto the internet. This is my latest haul from the UK, all very different, all very readable, all recommended to give pleasure.
Catherine Czerkawska is an award-winning playwright and accomplished novelist. The three stories in A Quiet Afternoon in the Museum of Torture are deceptively quiet and beautifully written – human experiences and relationships portrayed with empathy and considerable style. The action of the title story takes place in Italy, where a young couple with a very new baby are on holiday and visiting a small museum in Tuscany. The mother suddenly becomes aware that the world is a dangerous, frightening place now that she has another, vulnerable, life to care for. Her relationships with the baby and with her husband – changed forever by maternity – are unfolded with great subtlety and skill. ‘Breathe’ is a lovely account of a relationship with an elderly relative and shared memories of a place that is gradually being demolished. In ‘The Butterfly Bowl’, Debbie inherits a Chinese bowl from her great-great-grandfather. It’s plain and white but, when filled with water, reveals a beautiful secret. When a man enters Debbie’s life, the bowl becomes the object of contention and the success or destruction of their relationship pivots around the bowl.
‘Unicorn One’ is the first story in thriller writer John AA Logan’s full collection Storm Damage. It’s set in the future and features a female astronaut in Scotland’s Independent Space Program. ‘The world’s media had regarded our endeavour as a joke’, she says, but the story that unfolds is tragic rather than funny. The unknown girl chosen for the mission is carried along by the romance of it, proud to be chosen to be sent into space even though she’s only a hairdresser. ‘They would never have supported sending anyone over-educated into the cosmos,’she tells us and you begin to wonder why. It dawns on the reader at the same moment it dawns on the girl herself. Space doesn’t turn out to be the ‘vast, soothing, empty darkness’ she had envisaged; it is much more malevolent. ‘There comes a point where things break, relationships and people themselves. I don’t think anyone really knows why.’ And she breaks . . . but that isn’t the end of the story.
In the title story ‘Storm Damage’, the owner meets an insurance loss adjuster and a builder at an isolated, almost derelict house. There’s an atmosphere of unease right from the beginning, ‘The air was full of flies and the smell of excrement’. Something is deeply wrong in the psychology of the narrator. ‘Late Testing’ is one of the most chilling stories in the collection, where a young man, already physically and mentally damaged from WWI, becomes involved in a village witch-hunt, where an innocent person is killed. But he has his terrible revenge . .
In another Amazon ‘triplet’, This Heat, Elizabeth Stott explores the surreal atmosphere of expatriate life in the nineteen sixties. The stories feature a diverse group of people, thrown together because they are all expatriates in a small, unstable, middle-eastern state. They suffer from the extreme heat, the claustrophobia of living and working in the same space, with other people who can’t be avoided, and they begin to behave differently. A bored, unsatisfied wife is disturbed by an attempted theft; an adolescent girl becomes conscious of the dangerous power of her developing sexuality; and a male teacher, living on his own, becomes obsessed with the pristine white of Mrs Wetherby’s clothes. This is a glimpse into the nineteen sixties’ world of fading colonial power and how women coped with the disruption of their own lives as they followed their husbands into alien environments. These are well-constructed, well-written stories by a prize-winning short story writer.
Cally Phillips short story collection Voices in ma heid, is written in Scots and I found it difficult to read at first, but when I heard one of the stories read aloud it suddenly became absolutely right – any difficulty vanishes as soon as the words are spoken. All the stories have strong voices, as you’d expect from a playwright, but the best one, for me, is ‘The Stabbin’ o’ Rizzio’, which has, as a historic reference point, the murder of Mary Queen of Scots’ secretary (rumoured to be her lover) David Rizzio – but you don’t need to know that at all – it simply adds depth. The street-wise, but extremely vulnerable (although she doesn’t know it herself) girl who narrates the story, lives with ‘H’, the hardest smack dealer on the estate, and she’s expecting his child. Then she is inadvertently involved in his crime. These are contemporary, disturbing stories about the times we live in.
Apart from individual authors putting out their own work, there are several interesting independent presses out there championing cutting edge fiction. Route Publishing in Leeds http://www.route-online.com/ was one of the first small presses to realise the power of e-publishing and I was lucky enough to be in one of their very first e-anthologies of short fiction – years ago now! – called Brief Lives, later published in book form as Route Off-line. They continue to innovate and experiment at the cutting edge of e-publishing and their site is well worth a look. Other small, independent presses (probably better described as ‘boutique’) that publish beautiful short fiction from Europe and beyond are Salt, and Peirene Press. There’s some interesting stuff out there when you start looking!
Read Kathleen’s own Amazon Triplet Three and Other Stories
Catherine Czerkawska’s A Quiet Afternoon in the Museum of Torture
John AA Logan’s Storm Damage
Cally Phillips’ Voices in ma heid
Elizabeth Burns’ This Heat
And if that’s not enough – have a browse round our SHORT STORIES virtual bookshelf.