Category Archives: Short stories
My list of titles for 20booksofsummer includes two short story collections. The Thing Around my Neck is a collection by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie that I picked up in the Oxfam stand at the Hay Festival. At a library sale I found a copy of An Elegy for Easterly by the Zimbabwean writer Petina Gappah which earned her the Guardian first book award in 2009.
Both have been on my ‘to read’ pile for about three years so I thought it was time to pay them some attention. Problem is that I’ve never been much of a fan of short stories. I’ve read only one other collection so I don’t know how best to approach reading these two books. I’m hoping those of you who are more regular readers of this form can come up with some recommendations on how to get the most out of reading the collections.
Do I start at the beginning and just work through the stories in the order in which they appear? Or do I begin with the titular story on the basis that this could have special significance – was it chosen because it sets the tone for the collection perhaps? Or do I just choose randomly?
Is it best to dip in and out of the collection, mixing it up with another book? If I do that I’m concerned I might lose the flow but then if I just read one after the other will they start to blur into one?
So far I’ve just glanced over both of these books and have liked what I’ve seen so far. I don’t want to spoil the experience. All advice will be welcomed.
I’ve never been much of a fan of short stories. I can admire the skill needed to create compelling characters, evoke a sense of place and tell a well rounded story all within a few thousand words. But when I read a short story I always get to the end feeling I’ve been short changed; that I’m just getting into it only to find myself adrift.
But two recent collections have shown that maybe the problem is that I just hadn’t found the right author.
I ordered The Redemption of Galen Pike by Carys Davies on the day it was announced she had won a 2015 Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Award and I discovered she comes from my home country of Wales. We have so few good contemporary authors that I wanted to show my support. I must have been in a fog at the time because I didn’t even twig that this was a collection of short stories.
Having now read it I can only concur with one of the Jerwood judges who called this collection ‘stunning’. It’s a slim book of 17 stories one of which Nothing Like My Nightmare is essentially a paragraph; a complete story told in 186 words by an unnamed narrator (a parent I surmise) reflecting on all the things that could go wrong as the daughter embarks on a flight overseas. Without spoiling the effect I’ll just say that the final sentence caught me so unawares I gasped.
The other stories, many of which have won prizes or been shortlisted in competitions, show the infinite variety of Carys Davies’ use of the short story form. They vary wildly in location from the wilds of Siberia to a remote farm in the Australian outback and a prison in a small Oklahoma community. It’s hard to determine exactly the time period in which some of the stories are set — the only clue in Precious, for example, a story about a foolish, idolised middle aged man who falls for his young cleaner, comes early on when he describes arriving at an apartment dragging his wheeled suitcase.
Many of these stories convey a impression of the vulnerability experienced by individual members of the human race and their consequent desire to connect with a fellow creature. In the title story, the connection is motivated by the desire of a Quaker spinster to bring comfort to a condemned prisoner and persuade him to cleanse his soul before death. When he rejects her overtures she simply sits with him in compatible silence waiting for the moment when he feels ready to talk. In another story, a woman reluctantly lets a neighbour into her home while her husband is away, believing him to be obnoxious only to discover they endure the same painful secret.
Vulnerability isn’t confined to ordinary people in Carys Davies’ world. She delivers a delightful story of a man’s daring attempt to rescue the widowed Queen Victoria from yet another desperately dull official event by relating a story about his wife’s infidelity. Another, rather poignant, tale brings us Charlotte Bronte purchasing a new hat before a meeting with the publisher to whom she’s rather taken a shine.
These are stories that are hard to resist reading in one sitting. But they are best savoured in small doses, the more fully to enable the resonance of each to linger.
The Redemption of Galen Pike by Carys Davies is published in the UK by Salt Publishing.
You can read the title story at Prospect Magazine here but I urge you not to stop at this one story. Go and buy the book.
Her tales are concise, subtle narratives located firmly in rural Ontario where she has lived most of her life. It’s an area into which the trappings of twenty-first century life seldom seem to intrude —you won’t find any of the characters in Dear Life for example, spending hours texting their friends or surfing the Internet. Yet these stories radiate out from the small town settings of Lake Huron communities to themes and issues that are far broader and universal.
None of the people in her stories are showy individuals or great individuals. They are just ordinary people of the kind you can meet in the coffee shop or the grocery store. When they walk into her narratives however they become transformed into people capable of deep emotion, suffering anguish they might lose their husband’s love, of the trauma of blackmail, of the vacuum created by a sick partner’s slow walk towards death, of the confusion of old age. Munro treats them with warmth and compassion, never judging them but simply showing that she understands.
In Leaving Maverly, one of the most memorable stories in this collection, we meet a community policeman with a sick wife. He devotes himself to her, even moving to the city so she can get better care. As time passes and she slips away from him into a coma, his visits to the hospital become less frequent. It isn’t that he doesn’t care, it’s just that he gives up waiting for the day when she will open her eyes and see him. The emptiness caused by her eventual death hits him unexpectedly:
He’d thought that it had happened long before with Isabel, but it hadn’t. Not until now. She had existed and now she did not… And before long, he found himself outside, pretending that he had as ordinary and good a reason as anybody else to put one foot ahead of the other.
That last image of the policeman walking out into the night is a good illustration of the way Munro leaves you feeling that her characters have a life before we meet them, and a life that will continue long after we have read the final sentence. It’s also an example of the unshowy, understated way she writes. She doesn’t go in for narratives stuffed with grand rhetorical flourishes. You won’t find multi layers of imagery or lengthy descriptive passages as a rule so when her images do materialise they are even more effective because they fit the theme so exactly.
One memorable example comes at the end of Pride. The two characters are both social misfits though in very different ways. He is scarred by a hare lip, she by the shame of her banker father’s mismanagement of funds. They forge a friendship while enjoying cosy meals watching BBC comedy series on tv and eating their supper from trays on their laps. A misunderstanding threatens their relationship but then they notice unusual activity around the birdbath in his garden that re-unites them
… how beautiful. Flashing and dancing and never getting in each other’s way so you could not tell how many there were, where each body started or stopped.
While we watched they lifted themselves up one by one and left the water and proceeded to walk across the yard, swiftly but in a straight diagonal line. As if they were proud of themselves but discreet.
We were as glad as we could be.
These are not stories that I could read in rapid succession. At first I felt they were rather underwhelming and the style too measured. But then after a few days had elapsed I found an idea or an image from the one I’d just finished, would come back into my mind and I would want to read it again.
I’m not sure that I would be in a huge rush to read another collection by her but if I come across one of her stories in the magazines where typically they get their first airings (some of those from Dear Life were originally published in Harper’s Magazine and The New Yorker) I know I won’t want to turn the page.
For the Record
Paperback copy. 319 pages
Published in the UK by Vintage Books 2012