shining the spotlight on short story collections
Salt Publishing, 2013
(Uncle Jack) brought … an enormous book, when he sat it down upon his lap and opened it up it was wider than he was, and she could only imagine how many stories there must be in there … hundreds, no thousands, no, all the stories in the world.
Bedtime Stories for Yasmin – Robert Shearman
Invited to review Nicholas Royle’s latest anthology, The Best British Short Stories 2013 (Salt Publishing), I knew I was in for a treat, having already reviewed BBSS 2012. There is no more carefully chosen yet eclectic anthology series in existence in Britain today, and, what’s more, I would advise anyone embarking on this year’s stories to first cast an eye over Royle’s fascinating introduction, in which he explains as much about the stories he didn’t choose, but which almost made it into the anthology, as he does about the stories he does include. Thus he affords the left-outs a degree of exposure. He mentions numerous literary journals, major and minor, and comments on the quality of production; but he is not afraid to criticise some well-known examples of journals which have failed, in his view, to comply with the accepted code of literary conduct; those for example which have stopped sending out review issues or which have, in effect, stopped sponsoring new writing or, worse, have taken to filling their pages with the work of their own editors.
Royle makes it clear that he has not, thus far, been a fan of flash fiction, asserting that it has had no place in serious literature. Nonetheless he has included some flash fiction and a few very short stories. Indeed, Alison Moore’s Proustian The Smell of the Slaughterhouse is placed at the very beginning of the book as a salute to Royle’s newfound acceptance of the form. It’s something of a surprise, not a story I would have expected this early in the anthology. But Moore is a gifted story-teller and this tightly-woven little tale of off-stage domestic abuse deserves its place.
Domestic strife is a recurrent theme and the theme of unseen abuse recurs in a number of stories: in Adam Marek’s dark Stormchasers a father is both protector of his son and perpetrator of terrible violence against his wife, whilst Charles Lambert’s spine-chilling Curtains, one of the longer pieces, draws his reader into the secret madness and growing hatred of a woman who has had an abortion at the demand of her husband and who takes childish pleasure in her revenge. Lesley Glaister, in the clever Just Watch Me, looks back over a long marriage begun somewhere in the latter part of last century. A middle-aged wife’s final vengeance is as long and implacable as it is invisible. Glaister’s sharp perception of the cracks which might appear in a worn-out old relationship made more threadbare by a half-hearted affair would be comic if they weren’t so real.
Another kind of domestic strife appears in Hostage by Guy Ware. Ware edges towards magical realism in a London suburb when a wife disappears. Or does she? This story intrigues, but doesn’t chill in the same way as Bedtime Stories for Yasmin, by Robert Shearman, a sort of Twenty-First Century Grimm’s fairy tale. Half-seen shape-changing images and the sensation of damp give a real feeling of horror and evil to this story – is it an incubus? Is it Uncle Jack? Or, then again it might be little ….
Just as full of magic and imagination, but equally full of fun and secret domestic pleasures is the boldly-told My Wife the Hyena, by Nina Killham, whilst Jacky Kay’s quirky, lyrical and beautifully narrated Mrs Vadne Marlene Sevlon reaches out to the reader for understanding for a woman who lives an imaginary existence. This woman is a liar, but not in the accepted sense – Vadnie Marlene Sevlon has a way of avoiding reality, driven by lonely desperation.
In a move towards the experimental, Nicholas Royle has included such stories as J Krissman in the Park, by Laura del Rivo and Budapest, by Charles Boyce and the disconcerting Voyage, by Adam Lively, in which the ghosts of the famous and powerful find themselves together on a cruise ship. I would also classify Regi Claire’s horror-story, Tasting as experimental, together with Ellis Sharp’s clever The Writer, in which imaginary transformations take place against the detailed and real backdrop of a journey across London.
The theme of writers is taken up again in the richly ironic Doctors, by Anneliese Mackintosh. Why on earth would a writer of fiction want to do a PhD, is the question. Why not just get on with writing? It’s a question many of us might want to ask ourselves!
Another favourite story is the shocking, but intensely beautiful, The Swimmer in the Desert, by Alex Preston. His unerring sense of place takes the reader into the unbearable heat of the Himalayan border and into unseen danger.
Ross Raisin’s When You Grow into Yourself, a beautifully written and sensitive narrative about homophobia in second-rate football clubs is touching and revealing in equal measure.
Stories of the descent into old age are popular in many anthologies. The Alzheimer’s-ridden father and husband in Dancing to Nat King Cole, by James Wall, echoes writers who have taken this theme in other anthologies. But Wall puts his own stamp on the subject and writes sensitively of the hopelessness and helplessness of a family facing the end-of-life decline one of its members.
The last story in the anathology is also one of the longest. Eleanor – The End Notes, is another tale of decline: the end of the career of a concert violinist. David Rose writes beautifully and eloquently of Eleanor’s increasing difficulty in making recordings of great classical music without ‘patching’. The unexpected and generous ending is deeply touching, a fitting end to this book.
Jackie Kay’s story, Mrs Vadnie Marlene Sevlon, can be read here.
About the reviewer: Susan Haigh recently returned from France to live in Fife. She is a now a postgraduate student on the MLitt Creative Writing programme at Dundee University. Her short fiction has won a number of awards and has been published in journals and anthologies. She has also written a novel and two plays for radio.