Introduction

I spend a lot of time thinking about the short stuff. I review short story collections for Mslexia, and over the last three years, dozens of stories have passed through my hands. I like brief stories that feel so well realised, they burrow into my brain and never quite leave me. I particularly like work that explores female identity and relationships – what it is to be a sister, a best friend, a girlfriend, a stranger, a lover, a mother – and the interactions between those identities. The stories below all feature relationships at their core, in one way or another, and they range between big moments and small interactions; ghosts, cannibals, girls in school uniform, women in turmoil. Each one speaks to me and I hope at least one speaks to you too.

‘Alice Baker’ by Susan Hill

This dinky brocade hardback contains just four short stories sure to chill you in the depths of winter. ‘Alice Baker’ is about a stranger struggling to fit in. A new member of staff, the eponymous Alice, creates a sense of unease in an otherwise neat and friendly office of polite people who aren’t quite sure how to respond to this strange, almost unlikeable woman. I love the loneliness of this story. Like all of Susan Hill’s gothic work, there’s an inevitable ghostly element to it, and it follows in the footsteps of ghost-nerd M. R. James, but it also made me think of the desperate sadness of Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen – one of my all-time favourite books about female relationships and weird women.

Published in The Travelling Bag, Profile Books, 2016

‘Blood Rites’ by Daisy Johnson

The ancient marshy fens of East Anglia are the eerie, magical backdrop of Daisy Johnson’s debut collection Fen. In ‘Blood Rites’, the fen plays host to three female cannibals. Hunters, they’re almost vampiric as they prowl from place to place, seeking fresh flesh to devour. When locals gather for pints at the Fox and Hound, vulnerable to and yet unsuspicious of the beautiful strangers amongst them, the three women imagine they “would taste like the earth, like potatoes buried until they were done, like roots and tree bark.” The trio relate to one another and the world around them in a distorted reflection of femininity: they shave their legs and think about men, but only because that’s what they must do to survive. They stand outside looking in on what it is to be girls, to be women, and to be human – until something happens that warps their identities irreparably. Johnson has this penchant for taking young, flawed characters and placing them in the dark realm of folklore, and this story absolutely exemplifies that flair.

Published in Fen, Jonathan Cape, 2016. You can read it in The Pool

‘The Woman Who Lived in a Restaurant’ by Leone Ross

Ross’s writing is sensual, brooding, playful, dark and unexpected – and nowhere more so than in this story.The Woman Who Lived in a Restaurant’ is about love, sacrifice, misogyny, loyalty, sex and death. It does what it says on the tin: a woman takes up permanent residence in her would-be lover’s restaurant to wait patiently for his affection. The building itself cracks, shifts and breaks whenever the lovers touch too much: she’s in for a long wait, as he’s married to his job. So she waits. He sends her exquisite, off-menu dishes for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and she waits. Customers complain about her, and she waits. Staff resent her, and she waits. The couple take great, melancholic pleasure in the simple joy of being in proximity, of having one another in sight, sharing a single kiss each day, but never truly being together. In fact, as the chef goes home each night, the mistress actually spends more time with his wife, the silent but ever-present restaurant. And there’s something quite beautiful about that too.

First published by Nightjar Press in 2015, and collected in Come Let Us Sing Anyway, Peepal Tree Press, 2017, Best British Short Stories 2016, Salt, 2016 and The Penguin Book of the Contemporary British Short Story, Penguin, 2018. Read it online at the Barcelona Review

‘Dentaphilia’ by Julia Slavin

‘Dentaphilia’ is one of the first short stories that I fell in love with; I read it during my undergrad degree and was blown away by its delightful weirdness. Told from the perspective of her husband, it’s about a woman who spontaneously grows teeth all over her body until every inch of her is covered in pearly whites. It’s a true exercise in the “What if?” approach to storytelling and Slavin explores the body horror of unexpected teeth (a nightmare for this dentaphobe) with an unflinching dedication to realism. It’s like examining the already wild concept of vagina dentata and taking it to an extreme. ‘Detaphilia’ is an off-beat and bittersweet story about beauty and fidelity, loyalty and change, and about the weirdness of teeth and bodies, love and blood. The line ‘Watcha looking at, Hel?’ will never stop breaking my heart.

First published in the Crescent Review, and collected in The Woman Who Cut off Her Legat the Maidstone Club, Henry Holt, 1999, and The Burned Children of America, Hamish Hamilton, 2003

‘The Evolution of my Brother’ by Jenny Zhang

Zhang’s short stories explore themes of family and immigration, and my favourite is ‘The Evolution of My Brother.’ We’re introduced to a pair of Chinese-American siblings that, like many of Zhang’s characters, have grown up close yet distant; they have quite a large age gap between them, and their closeness waxes and wanes over the course of the story. As the narrator – also named Jenny, which feels like an excellent two-fingers-up to the cliché that women writers are diarists – watches her younger brother grow up, she slowly realises that she has no idea who he is. He’s a little odd around the edges, with anxieties and compulsions that his family struggle to understand. What really gets me about this story is the reflection on not just the evolution of the individual, but also of the meaning of family: “there would come a point when in thinking about ‘family’ we would think of the ones we made, not the ones we were from.” I find that so incredibly sad, and yet so beautifully true.

First published in Rookie, 2011 and collected in Sour Heart, Lenny/Bloomsbury, 2017

‘Head to Toe’ by Abigail Ulman

In ‘Head to Toe’, jaded teenagers Jenni and Elise decide to withdraw from the keg parties and awkward sexual encounters of their peers and return to the horse-riding camp of their middle school summers. There’s this sense of quiet acceptance that life isn’t as exciting as they thought it would be, when they were kids lying in their sleeping bags, imaging their future of dating, of parties, of high school. The girls have to share a cabin with three pre-teens, and they enjoy sliding into the role of big sisters – as experienced mediators – when their roommates have a tearful row over an inconsequential truth-spilling game. Later, however, our protagonists find themselves struggling to adapt when the twenty-something riding coach tries to talk to them as peers over dinner. When they return home, after camp, they go to a party and slide right back into place. They aren’t quite adults, but they no longer feel like children. It’s the perfect story about the liminality of growing up.

Published in Hot Little Hands, Spiegel & Grau/Penguin, 2016