‘Mother’ by Grace Paley

This is one of the first very short stories I ever read, in an anthology of “sudden fiction” edited by Robert Shapard and James Thomas and published by Norton in 1983, and I was knocked sideways by it. How is it possible to do all this in just over a page? It sparked my love for these tiny stories, which are often magical, illustrating just how few words, precisely and carefully chosen, it takes to conjure up a world and to have an impact far beyond the duration of their reading. Here, Paley talks about her mother, yes, but in these 420 words she is also telling us what it is like to be a child, a daughter, and imagining herself into her parents’ marriage before she arrived. She enlists us as fellow time-travellers, eavesdropping on her young parents. And, of course, this is a story – as all short stories are, says Ali Smith – about death. Beautifully. Once again, it has caught me in the chest. Right there.

First published in Later The Same Day (FSG, 1985), included in Sudden Fiction, edited by Robert Shapard and James Thomas (Peregrine Smith, 1986), and available to read online here

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