My selection of short stories follows the seasons, month by month. I imagined them as a collection to read slowly as the year unfolds. I had a brilliant time gathering my favourites and reminding myself of the great sentences, as well as scenes that symbolised the rhythms of the natural world: Katherine Mansfield’s pear tree in spring, Shirley Jackson’s dark, unfriendly streets of New York giving an eerie autumn atmosphere.
There’s so much I love about all these stories, not only the way they allow me to mark each month of the year. They each depict the inner lives of women, show the ways we can’t always express how we feel, and have an element of ghosts, hauntings or the surreal. Perfect!
A story for January
I could have chosen any number of Grace Paley stories, but I’ve selected ‘Mother’ to kick off my list as it’s set on New Year’s Day and the tone of reflection we often have as the year turns. A writer, teacher and peace activist, Paley’s stories are filled with people, vivid scenes, and city life. Her work has a bright, fast energy.
‘Mother’ has a typically distinctive voice from the start (“I have often longed to see my mother in the doorway”) and humour (“She said sadly, If you come home at 4 a.m. when you’re seventeen, what time will you come home when you’re twenty?”), with a sense of the past haunting the present (“They sat in comfortable leather chairs. They were listening to Mozart. They looked at one another amazed. It seemed to them that they’d just come over on the boat.”)
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
A story for February
A love story of sorts, for Valentine’s Day. “I stand here ironing, and what you asked me moves tormented back and forth with the iron.” I often think about this story of a mother reflecting on her teenage daughter’s life in response to concerns from a teacher. How the ‘back and forth’ motion of the iron is echoed in the shape of the piece, with memories, arguments and regrets rising and falling. (“Running out to that huge school where…she was lost, she was a drop,” then “She is so lovely. Why did you want me to come in at all? Why were you concerned? She will find her way.”) How it opens and deepens with lines taking in this family and other families across Depression-era America. How it ends without resolution but instead, like ironing and other domestic tasks, concluded for now, until the next day when it will be done all over again.
First published in Tell Me a Riddle, Dell, 1961/Virago 1980, and available to read online here
A story for March
‘In the Middle of the Fields’ is about a woman mourning her husband, feeling drawn to the past. This is reflected in the time of year it takes place. It looks both to the cool of winter and the warmth of the future: although set in spring, “there was a cutting east wind coming across the river.”
Much is underneath the surface of this story, in which a neighbouring farmer shares with the woman the story of his own lost wife and a new wife, too. Mary Lavin’s stories are subtle. Populated by determined women in rural Ireland, trying to live on their own terms, alongside the loneliness and the judgements of others. She shows us how the quiet, intimate overlooked details of life can be tremendously important.
First published in The New Yorker, May 1961, and available to subscribers to read here; collected in In the Middle of the Fields, 1967. Most recently published by New Island Books, 2016. Here it read by Colm Toíbín on the New Yorker fiction podcast here
A story for April
I was a short story reader before I was a writer and the first writer I fell in love with was Lorrie Moore. Her wry, ironic, conversational voice. Those puns and quips! The way her characters stumble through life. Her stories made me want to write my own, about the ways people I knew lived their lives.
‘Agnes of Iowa’ is about a quiet teacher who once lived in New York and now is in the Midwest. Her husband (“he smelled sweet, of soap and minty teeth, like a child”) is a little disappointing, so her sudden attraction to a visiting poet one April shocks and delights her. That month is “cool and humid. Bulbs cracked and sprouted, shot up their green periscopes.” There’s a lovely sense of something shifting in her life, when she would “wait for the moment, then seize it.”
From Birds of America, New York: Alfred Knopf, 1988. Available to read online on the Granta website
A story for May
Although Bertha Young was thirty she still had moments like this when she wanted to run instead of walk, to take dancing steps on and off the pavement, to bowl a hoop, to throw something up in the air and catch it again, or to stand still and laugh at–nothing–at nothing, simply.
The pure joy captured here in the beginning, and throughout the piece, is spellbinding, especially as later it’s replaced with a darker set of feelings.
At the heart of the story is “a tall, slender pear tree in fullest, richest bloom; it stood perfect, as though becalmed against the jade-green sky.” I love short stories that take an image and hold it up to the light, show it from different angles, and allow it to take on different meanings as the narrative progresses. The tree is initially a symbol of the springtime’s abundance, then of youth, of hidden desires, and finally of loss and the passage of time.
First published in the English Review (1918), now in Selected Stories, Oxford World’s Classics, 2002, and other Mansfield collections, available online here
A story for June
This whole collection by Julie Orringer is wonderful. Nine stories of people learning to navigate life, loss and relationships, learning how to breathe underwater. All the stories explore the moments of transition between childhood and adulthood, family and independence.
In Note to Sixth-Grade Self, the weather is warm and the sky is bright. It opens with: “On Wednesdays wear a skirt. A skirt is better for dancing.” The tone is hopeful but we soon realise the narrator writes to a younger version of herself, guiding her through her very painful pre-teen years. Cruel girls tease her in their ballroom dancing class, they bully her in and out of school. But there’s a final, redemptive scene in which her understanding of people, her hopefulness, is rewarded. The story is mesmerising, and tender. Very wise, very beautiful.
Published in the Paris Review, Winter, 2000, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in How to Breathe Underwater, Knopf, 2003, which is now available as a Vintage Contemporary, 2005
A story for July
Lahiri’s short fiction collection Interpreter of Maladies is so beautiful and elegant, but I’ve chosen ‘Whereabouts’ for this list.
Presented as a novel, I prefer to see the book as a series of vignettes. Over a year, an unnamed woman wanders in an unnamed European city. Each chapter is named after a location she’s visited: from the coffee bar to the supermarket, book shop to bed, her balcony to the sea. The primary relationship is between the protagonist and the place she lives. They’re in constant conversation.
‘In the Sun’ describes one of the first warm days of summer:
“A splendid Saturday…a dash of elegance to how people dress: the bold shade of a jacket, a bright scarf, the tight lines of a dress… the piazza becomes a beach on days like this, and a sense of well-being, of euphoria, permeates the air.”
Taken from Whereabouts, Bloomsbury, 2021. An extract from the book is available to read online here
A story for August
‘Tom Rock through the Eels’ is about a woman in the aftermath of her mother’s death. It’s a story told through fragments, memories and moments. A double bed now slept in alone. A nursery selling garden plants and tools. A forty-eight house train journey. (“When the car lights go out, a porter brings me a blanket. He tucks it around my shoulders like––what else?––like a mother.”) Each scene is distilled to its essence. Each sentence matters:
“My head against a small synthetic pillow, I think: Mothers. They teach their daughters to use pumice on their heels, and to roll a lemon inside its skin before slicing, to bring out the juice. My mother said men, unless they were sober, what they meant when they asked you to marry was that you looked nice in that dress, or they liked your hair that way.”
I’ve selected this story for August, because it’s the kind of story that rewards slow, leisurely reading. Imagine yourself in a park, sun on your face, taking the time to marvel at Amy Hempel’s lucid, lyrical writing that sees into the depth of people’s lives.
First published in At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom, Knopf 1990. Collected in The Dog of the Marriage: Collected Stories, Quercus, 2009
A story for September
This short story opens with Anna, dressed in black, searching along dark passages in the Parisian couture house where she works. She’s paraded around, alongside other doll-like models. For Anna, it’s a strange, exhausting dream. At the close of the story, a feeling of freedom rises, escape, movement: “All up the street the mannequins were coming out of the shops, pausing on the pavements a moment, making them as gay and as beautiful as beds of flowers before they walked swiftly away and the Paris night swallowed them up.” I admire Rhys’ handling of the subject—women’s bodies as commodities—and her spare, terse language, each word chosen like it’s a precious thing.
Originally published in The Left Bank and Other Stories 1927, Later collected in The Collected Short Stories, Norton 1992. Available to read here
A story for October
For All Hallow’s Eve and the shift to the darker side of the year, I choose Shirley Jackson. Her work is always unsettling, with the edges of this world blurred with the supernatural. In ‘The Daemon Lover,’ a woman searches the city for her fiancé, and can’t find him anywhere. It’s the day of their wedding, and as she grows more frantic and isolated, the story turns nightmarish: she travels to his apartment and finds his name on none of the mailboxes, the ones that may know him don’t remember him leaving, various shop owners’ faces rise up, their voices circling her. I’ve subsequently read that this story has in it Jackson’s comment about society’s expectation on women to marry but what I love in it is the invisible figure haunting every page, barely glimpsed, then eventually lost.
Collected in The Lottery and Other Stories, Farrar, Straus and Company, 1949, republished by Penguin Classics in 2009. The story can be read here
A story for November
‘The Bloody Chamber’ has one of my favourite scenes: a young woman trapped in Bluebeard’s castle and facing a beheading by her husband is rescued in a wild, theatrical, tremendous moment:
You never saw such a wild thing as my mother, her hat seized by the winds and blown out to sea so that her hair was her white mane, her black lisle legs exposed to the thighs, her skirts tucked round her waist, one hand on the reins of the rearing horse while the other clasped by father’s service revolver.”
Yeah! Her mother bursts into the castle one of the many very visible, vocal, violent women in this short story collection. It’s set in the winter, making the most of the bleak, cold imagery that it offers: “The heavy sword, unsheathed, grey as that November morning, sharp as childbirth, mortal.”
First published in The Bloody Chamber, Gollancz, 1979. Available from Vintage Classics
A story for December
My final wintertime choice is Leanne Shapton’s ‘Guestbook: Ghost Stories’ a collection of 33 surreal, uncanny short fictions. Each is created using prose, poetry, paintings, photographs, floor plans, wrapping paper, and more. This is a book that “to read out of the corner of your eye,” says one critic. It’s full of suggestions and impressions, whispers and glimpses.
One of the stories is ‘At the Foot of the Bed’ and shows a series of sad, abandoned, empty beds. Alongside the image, a short piece of text describes the ghostly visitors unseen but imagined into the photographs. Each has their own tale of heartbreak, loss and escape.
Particular Books, 2019. Read an excerpt in the Random House website here