‘New Year’s Eve’ by Mavis Gallant

Whatever happens on New Year’s Eve “happens every day for a year”. That is a scary thought. Especially for the unhappy bereaved Plummers and unhappy almost-orphan Amabel, who spend a squirmingly uncomfortable last night of the year in Moscow enduring the wrong opera in the wrong language with the wrong people.

It’s not a long story and there’s not much plot, just Amabel’s delusions and the Plummers’ dark innards scalpeled open. But every sentence of Gallant’s exact and flowing prose brings a little ping of surprise – oh, she’s going to do that now! Hey, I wasn’t expecting that! Gallant’s characters are frequently outspoken but rarely understand each other. (And when they do, they pretend not to.) Here, Cyrillic script and minds disorderly with time and loss add further division. Nothing, it seems, will rescue the Plummers from their lonely cells, but, at the end, there is a hint that Amabel’s incapacity for deep thought may save her – and that is also typical of Gallant, where intelligence is so often a bar to any conventional form of happiness.

‘New Year’s Eve’ is both heartbreaking and laugh-out-loud funny, and if the evening’s events will indeed repeat themselves throughout 2019, we could all do worse than indulge in some Gallant before the fireworks start.

First published in The New Yorker, 10 Jan 1970. Available in various Gallant collections, including The Selected Stories of Mavis Gallant, Bloomsbury

Chosen by Jo Lloyd. Jo is from South Wales, where she enjoys naming the elements. Her short fiction has appeared in Zoetrope, Ploughshares, Southern Review, Best British Short Stories, and the 2018 O Henry Prize Stories.

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