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

‘Shu Yi’ by Maxine Beneba Clarke

Stories about children making bad decisions always make my toes curl and leave a devasting impression on me. In ‘Shu Yi’, our narrator is Ava, a young and somewhat lonely bookworm. Her mother, who “worked tirelessly to fit [their] brown-skinned family of five into conservative white suburbia” asks her to befriend new girl Shu Yi. Although Ava describes her as “the most beautiful creature I had ever seen” and “exactly what I would have been like, if I were a little less me” she recognises Shu Yi not as a kindred spirit, but as a social burden in a school whose racism permeates the very air around them. Caught in a net of internalised racism and with the strong desire to slip through school unseen, Ava shuns Shu Yi, with devastating consequences. A must-read about racism, fitting in and peer pressure.

First published in Peril, 2010, and collected in Foreign Soil, Hackette Australia, 2014/Corsair 2015

‘Sundaes at the Tipping Yard’ by Lara Williams

This is a story about “a girl who quits her job, her boyfriend, her flat and does a Creative Writing MA” only to find that she can only write about girls who quit the aforementioned to do Creative Writing MAs. It’s written in the second person, which I always love, and it has a kind of hopeless rhythm to it as the narrator consistently succeeds at nothing but mediocrity. It’s a story about gentle disappointments, about washing diazepam down with warm white wine and “thinking about the air.” If it sounds navel-gazey, that’s because it absolutely is – and I love it for that exact reason. Returning to the story to write this, I was shocked to discover that it – like many others in the collection – is incredibly short: just six pages, and it has left as lasting an impression on me as any novel. It reminds me of some of my favourite recent books about lost millennial women: The Idiotby Elif Batuman, Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney (in fact, everything by Sally Rooney), All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg and many of the stories from Abigail Ulman’s Hot Little Hands.

Published in Treats, Freight Press, 2016

‘Synaesthete, Would Like to Meet’ by Eley Williams

It was hard to pick one story from Attrib., because the whole collection fizzes with the fresh, addictive energy that made it such a hit. It feels impossible to play favourites. While I often reread the alphabet paragraph from the opening story, I chose ‘Synaesthete, Would Like to Meet’ for my Personal Anthology because I think it best captures Williams’ playful spirit whilst also fitting into my loose theme of relationships. The story introduces a character with synaesthesia before, during and after a strangely successful date. The narrator has synaesthesia, which means as they interact with the world, words, sounds and images are paired with flavours, scents, colours and sensations in an overwhelming cacophony of stimulation. By dating the right person, the narrator discovers a way to numb the overwhelming clash of the senses and the general sensory noise is slowly turned down. Every story with Williams is an adventure in a brilliant linguistic gymnasium and I love her writing to death.

First published in Night and Day, 2011, and collected in Attrib. and other Stories, Influx Press, 2017

‘When the Year Grows Old’ by Amy Bloom

‘When the Year Grows Old’ introduces a sensible, practical suburban housewife in the midst of a nervous breakdown. No longer prepared or able to meet the demands of her controlling husband, Laura sets up a camp bed in the basement of her neat suburban house and regresses to her barefoot, black-clad student days. Her daughter observes this sudden change in her mother from the side-lines as Laura develops a penchant for Dunhill cigarettes and quoting Blake. Loss is a constant theme in Amy Bloom’s work, and this story about loss of youth, loss of love, loss of life, is wonderful. I love the juxtaposition of mother and daughter, and the temptation to regress to what is arguably a more complicated and yet ultimately freer time of life.

First published in Story, 1992, and collected in Come to Me, HarperPerennial, 1993, and Rowing to Eden, Granta, 2015

‘Who Will Greet You at Home’ by Lesley Nneka Arimah

Motherhood, whether tender or terrible, is touched upon often in Lesley Nneka Arimah’s spellbinding collection. Although What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky is all killer, no filler, I’ve chosen ‘Who Will Greet You at Home’ as my stand-out story. In a matriarchal society, young women must craft their children from found materials, like yarn, raffia or clay, in the hope that their mothers will breathe life into their handmade effigies. Before that can happen, they must carry these dolls like babes in arms and keep them safe for a full year before there’s any hope of them coming to life. The narrator, Ogechi, struggles with the task of self-made motherhood, but after multiple false-starts she finds success with a somewhat unusual material. It’s a story about the pressure on women to be mothers, and to be perfect mothers at that, with perfect children, as well as covering themes of fertility and infant mortality.

First published in The New Yorker, October 2015, and collected in What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky, Tinder Press 2018