My last five choices are all stories I’ve read for the first time in the past year. Often new stories fade, but not these. Alice’s story was selected for the prestigious O Henry Award in 2021, an annual collection of the year’s twenty best stories published in the US and Canadian magazines. It is an unforgettably powerful account of a real event – the Cavan Orphanage fire of 1943 in which 35 children and one adult died. There’s a particular responsibility in imaginative reconstructions of historical events and Alice weaves a compelling narrative out of her research, much as she did in her historical novel, Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile, which Unbound published in 2019. It reconstructed the inner life of a servant in mid-19th century rural Gloucestershire in the form of an exquisitely written monologue. ‘From Far Around They Saw Us Burn’ uses a similar device – but to reveal much more would risk spoiling the story’s devastating cumulative impact. Suffice to say, the description of the progress of the fire scorches off the page: I think it’s destined to become a classic. It also prompted me to ask Alice if she had enough stories to make a collection – she did and that book – called From Far Around They Saw Us Burn – is currently funding on Unbound and scheduled for publication in Summer 2023.
First published in The Best Short Stories 2021: The O. Henry Prize Winners, edited by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie & Jenny Minton Quigley, Anchor Books, 2021 and available to read here