Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Reading the short story: the best collections I read in 2013

Wonderful short stories deserve a roaring fire

I’ve read more short stories over the last two years than in all the years of my life up until now. This has been driven by desire to learn, sheer pleasure, and the necessity of broadening my knowledge for my Creative Writing PhD, which focuses on the short form. Some astonishingly beautiful work has been recommended to me, often by Tania Hershman, who told me about Tina May Hall and Anthony Doerr amongst many others. Her new website ShortStops is full of information about UK and Irish short story journals, live literary events and more, and is a fantastic and much-needed resource. I’d encourage all writers and short story enthusiasts to take a look.

These are my short fiction collection crushes of 2013, books I just happened to read this year, with a special mention for a very short novel.

Kij Johnson’s At the Mouth of the River of Bees
Such a combination of imagination and excellent writing is rare, and is consistent throughout this collection. At no point could you possibly predict what Kij Johnson might write about next. The river of bees is exactly that – a torrent of insects followed by the protagonist – and we encounter vanishing monkeys, a cat on an odyssey, dogs that tell trickster tales. All these animals may sound rather silly, but there is a seriousness and often melancholy to these stories.
The story ‘Fox Magic’ is one of my favourites of the year, and was expanded into a novel, but even in short form absorbs the reader entirely in an invented world within an invented world. Kij Johnson writes ‘long’ for a short story writer, and compared with the brevity of, say, Tina May Hall, these stories feel like a different genre, one that allows you to wallow long enough to take away powerful, lasting impressions of places you could not have imagined before you began.

Anthony Doerr’s Memory Wall
Recommended to me by Tania last year, this sat on my shelf as I put off reading the long title story (85 pages). I happened to finally read it just before travelling to Cape Town, where the story is set, but nobody else should delay reading this book! As a reader (and writer) you always hope for those moments when you discover writing so good it almost hurts to read it. There is nothing fancy about Doerr’s writing. His sentences are often short. There is an element of the fantastic in many of his stories, but in ‘Memory Wall’ it is really just part of a backdrop for a kind of mini mystery thriller and is never overplayed. The story will probably make you cry, but not because of any obvious tragedy in the plot. There is a build up of sympathy in the reader aligning with both hope and grief, and it is a pleasure to let this finally overwhelm you if it happens. I will be re-reading this story every few months to try to see how Doerr does it.

Sarah Hall’s The Beautiful Indifference
Sarah Hall’s prose can be poetic but never overbearingly so. How she manages to use such gorgeous expression and yet never distract the reader from the story, I wish I understood. I wrote about this collection here, focusing on her use of dialect and original voice in the story ‘Butcher’s Perfume’, but this collection is full of all kinds of beauty. A great pleasure for a reader and an endless source of learning for writers of lyrical prose.

Tina May Hall’s The Physics of Imaginary Objects
Another Tania tip, this collection includes straight stories, stories written in fragments, and a novella made up of titled paragraphs. All of these forms work. Tina May Hall’s writing is tight yet can be soft, she uses the fantastic carefully and with deep effect, and I find myself moved without being able to identify what has done it. Her novella is beautiful, making familiar images newly bright and expressing powerful emotions without ever naming them. This is a small book that should be read very slowly.

Novel special mention: Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner
This is a short novel that could be read in an afternoon. Lolly Willowes defies her family’s expectations of her as resident maiden aunt and in middle age moves to the countryside alone, and becomes a witch. The writing is light, wry, and so clever without reminding you that it is. Take this description of Mr Gurdon, the village clerk: ‘Fiery down covered his cheeks, his eyes were small and truculent, and he lived in a small surprised cottage near the church’. I’ve never seen a house described as surprised before, and yet I can picture it. This creative, concise kind of expression is usually reserved for short stories, but this book is full of it. Anyone who harbours a fantasy of escaping to live in a way that feeds their imagination will derive huge amounts of vicarious pleasure from Lolly Willowes.