I lived, in the years before my divorce, in a house with a permanent guestroom. I had furnished this room as my ideal guest accommodation and kept a bookshelf there of short story collections only. It was a move based on the premise that short stories can keep an overnight visitor well-stocked in reading material without making them want to borrow the whole book to finish it. I don’t lend books unless I don’t want them back because they go so often unreturned, even if unintentionally. The twelve stories in this personal anthology each come from a book that once sat on that shelf in a house and a marriage now long left behind. I still have the books. Welcome to my virtual guestroom.

‘Caravan’ by Anne Enright

I read this story at a time when my children were of a similar age to the two children of the woman whose internal monologue carries it. ‘Caravan’ arrested me in an almost physical way. It was a kind of shock to me that a short story could capture so absolutely the push-pull and escaped-trapped feel of a family holiday with small children on a campsite in France.

There is much about this story that rang painfully true to me then, but still even now. It made we wince at the ordinary ache of it all. I have never forgotten the image it produced in my mind of Michelle backing out the door of their flimsy, temporary accommodation, cleaning cloth in hand, on their departure at the end. ‘Caravan’ has stayed with me from the moment I first finished it, and it lives on in my head.

First published in The Guardian, October 2007, and available to read online here; collected in Taking Pictures, Jonathan Cape, 2008

‘The Piano Teacher’s Pupil’ by William Trevor

Trevor is for me one of the absolute masters of the short story form. His stories always leave me with the feeling of having entered into, or stayed a while staring at, a particular kind of realist painting: where it’s all laid out before you, but the emotions are held just barely, and very neatly in check. This story is absolutely succinct, and so much larger than itself.  

First published in The New Yorker, and available to read online here; collected in Last Stories, Viking Penguin, 2018

‘Men of Destiny, After Jack B Yeats’ by Nuala Ní Chonchúir aka Nuala O’Connor

Nuala O’Connor, who also publishes as Nuala Ní Chonchúir, is one of 56 Irish writers who wrote responses to artworks in the National Gallery of Ireland Collection for this book. Building on the intense, tense feel of the original image, she imagined a whole world for the painting she chose. Jack B Yeats painted Men of Destiny in 1946. It’s a ghostly kind of painting, but also rich with a stark contrast between the fiery red-orange-yellow of sunlight hitting the land and the shoulders of the men, and the deep, dark blue of the sea below and the sky above. Ní Chonchúir’s story begins with a line that could serve as an open-ended, one-sentence description of the painting: “July, with its pressing light, its high note of optimism, was ending.” She brings us from the outline of the men walking on the pier to the fateful sound of two unexpected gunshots, and she does it in just three pages without missing a single step.  

First published in Lines of Vision, Irish Writers on Art edited by Janet McLean, Thames & Hudson, 2014

‘The Grief of Strangers’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

What begins as a story about a daughter travelling with her mother to the airport for a “connection” to a potential husband, ends as a tale about not betraying yourself for the comfort of others. ‘The Grief of Strangers’ slowly reveals its heroine Chinechelum as a woman who points repeatedly to the dance of compromise family and the rest of the world can demand. She holds no truck with the Englishman who defends his friend’s reference to her as a “dusky beauty”: “’He was complimenting you.’ ‘No, he was complimenting you,” she says, “Like one would compliment somebody who had a good racehorse.’” She tells her cousin Amara, “It’s interesting how much we forgive our children because they have foreign accents,” when Amara tolerates back-chat from her nine-year-old in her small London flat. Chinechelulm is a poet and an academic. The man she loves was shot nine years ago by US police, “Three white men” at his own front door, leaving him alive but without hope of recovery. This is a story about race, class, prejudice, identity, choices, selfhood, and living with tragedy.

First published in Granta 88, Mothers, 2004, and available to read online with subscription here

‘Fear’ by Anne Frank translated by Michel Mok

The global fame of Anne Frank’s diary overshadows the fact that she wrote short stories, essays and fables too. She was fourteen when she composed ‘Fear’, a two-page story dated 25 March 1944, which takes the reader from falling bombs to the freedom of nature with such speed and clarity it’s like being pulled along by gust of wind. It sparks with an acute atmosphere of not enough time, time running out, and a future neither guaranteed nor given. Collected in a 1986 Penguin edition, which I was given as a ten-year-old, I read it back then with a child’s mindset and marvelled as I do even more now at Frank’s fearless faith, her matter-of-fact directness, and the heartfelt wisdom of her innocence. 

Collected in Anne Frank’s Tales from the Secret Annex – stories, essays, fables and reminiscences written in hiding, Penguin, 1986

‘When I was a Witch’ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

A woman in New York finds herself wielding unexpected powers including the power to compel newspapers to print only the factual truth. She discovers of course that her real influence has its limits – because she is a woman. It’s remarkable how the ways in which this story skewers and confronts the problems of print journalism have not dated, much. The protagonist’s wish initially results in “a crazy quilt of a paper”, with “All intentional lies” printed in scarlet, “All malicious matter” in crimson, “All mere bait – to sell the paper” in bright green, “All hired hypocrisy” in purple. But soon everything turns to blue and black: “Good fun, instruction and entertainment” and “True and necessary news and honest editorials” only. This story first appeared in print 114 years ago in The Forerunner, a monthly magazine the author wrote and published herself for seven years. 21st century readings of her work necessarily consider her feminism within the co-existing context of her racism, but this remains a fascinating example of early 1900s feminist fantasy fiction.

First published in The Forerunner in 1909. Collected in The Yellow Wallpaper, Penguin 60s Classics, 1995, and available to read online here

‘A Walk to the Water’ by Patrick McCabe

In her introduction to this book, editor Louise Neri says the impulse for the project came from a profound ambivalence about the “closed-off, stillborn nature of much art criticism”. Described as a book of “fugue texts”, it includes writing by John Berger and Marina Warner and was envisaged as an alternative, after-the-fact catalogue for the solo exhibition Spanish sculptor Juan Muñoz held at IMMA, Dublin in the summer of 1994. Patrick McCabe is the only Irish writer among the contributors. His story begins, “In these corridors of white I see him still, padding away on his wee soft feet.” It loops briefly back to 1975 Brixton, London where a bomb has just gone off in a pub, flagging the potential unreliability of its narrator from the get-go: “In those days I lived on cream crackers and acid.” In hospital, he recalls Wee Bunty Brady from The Knacker’s Yard. The artworks are not named in the book, but McCabe’s story is preceded by a black and white image of one which must have inspired it: a photograph of a sculpture of a four-foot man, one of Muñoz’s “Dwarf” series. Mc Cabe was hot off the international success of his 1992 novel ‘The Butcher Boy’, but the editors still accidentally misspelled his name Partick in the list of contributors. His story is a dark tragedy about human disconnection, and the hidden tears of a clown.

First published in Silence please! Stories after the works of Juan Muñoz, Irish Museum of Modern Art and Scalo, 1996

‘Cinderella Re-examined’ by Maeve Binchy

I can hear Maeve Binchy’s biting social observation, quick wit, and disarming charm every time I read this tale. I was given this book as a Christmas present by my parents when I was a teenager. Binchy’s updated version of the children’s classic, throws the stereotypes under the bus, flips the narrative and points to the absolute absurdity of the original fairy-tale in a manner intended to make you guffaw out loud; and you might. Cinderella regards the upcoming ball as “mildly interesting in a sociological way” and busies herself with “doing several papers which had all come up at once in her correspondence courses”, before winning the Fairy Godmother Prize in a “silly sort of competition” in a magazine. It’s happy ever after in the end as she dismisses the Prince (“I really think you should see someone about this foot fetish you have”), and takes over running the castle, employed by the King as the new Chief Executive of Palace Enterprises, thus saving the royal family from imminent financial ruin and herself from spending any more time in the vicinity of her unpleasant sisters, whom Binchy has renamed Thunder and Lightning.

First published in Ride on Rapunzel, Fairytales for Feminists, Attic Press, 1992

‘The Cut-Glass Bowl’ by F Scott Fitzgerald

This story gets me every time. It’s one of those F Scott Fitzgerald tales about how shiny-looking things are really hard and nasty, and always turn to poison in the end. The action centres on a three-foot wide punch bowl, a malicious, beautiful gift. Written with his characteristic pace and style, it’s a vivid tale of social climbing, alcohol drinking, failing fortunes, and fading charm.

First published in Flappers and Philosophers, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1920. Collected in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Six Other Stories, Penguin Modern Classics, 2008

‘Harvest’ by Julian Gough

I interviewed Julian Gough about his debut novel Juno and Juliet when it came out in 2001. I only knew of him then as the lead singer in a band called Toasted Heretic. Two decades on, to a certain cohort of gamers he’s known as the author of one of the most culturally significant pieces of interdisciplinary cross-genre writing: the heartrending end poem that concludes the game of Minecraft. You can read more about that authorship saga, and it is one, here. Gough has said ‘Harvest’ was written by his subconscious one morning. Pre-publication, he used it as part of a digital fundraiser at a time when that was still a relatively novel thing to do, coining a brilliant new word, “Litcoin”, which don’t think ever took off. It’s a very beautiful, apocalyptic love story about a man and a woman, a bookshelf, and the end of the world, coming at dawn.

Collected in Davy Byrnes Stories 2014, The six prize-winning stories from the 2014 Davy Byrnes Short Story Award, The Stinging Fly Press, 2014

‘A Dill Pickle’ by Katherine Mansfield

This is a deliciously stop-start story that veers wildly between passion and indifference. I can smell the zest of the orange peel, clearly see the waft of the Russian cigarette smoke, and taste the titular dill pickle. Like a lot of my favourite short stories, it’s a portrait of disconnection, misconnection, and the potential for something more (whether really desirable or not) cut off or cut short. I applaud it for its an exquisitely enticing opening line: “And then, after six years, she saw him again.”

First published in The New Age on 4 October 1917; collected in Bliss & Other Stories, Wordsworth Classics, 1998, and available to read online here

‘The Red Coral Bracelet’ by Judith Hermann translated by Margot Bettauer Dembo

I reviewed this debut collection by German writer Judith Hermann when it was published in translation in 2002. It had been hailed as a triumph by Die Zeit, Le Monde, The Sunday Times, TLS and more, and it astonished me with its brevity, clarity, brilliance, and intense moodiness. This is the opening story and it’s about a woman, her lover, Germany, Russia, and the woman’s great great grandmother’s red coral bracelet. It’s also about how the multigenerational stories we tell, and the artifacts that survive with them, can hold and define us. I ended up owning two copies and giving one away gladly, because this is the kind of book you want everyone to read. I think The Summer House, Later was the compilation that brought me back to loving and believing in the intense, transformative power of a great short story collection.

Collected in The Summer House, Later – A book about the moment before happiness, Flamingo, 2002. An extract consisting of the first 1000 words is available to read online here