Where to begin? The challenge of fulfilling this anthology’s remit – choose twelve short stories that have ‘marked you as a reader, and marked your course through life’ – seemed impossible at first. I would, of course, have to leave many out; make compromises with favourite writers (how to choose between Dylan Thomas’s ‘One Warm Saturday’ and ‘The Peaches’?) It seemed logical to begin at the beginning, with stories I read in childhood or early adolescence, and then work up to the present moment. But this method proved too schematic in the end, too constricting. Some great stories don’t exactly mark your course through life, yet are nevertheless impossible to forget. Some just make you bitter with envy as a fellow writer, while some – the best – make you see the world, and your own life, through a startlingly fresh lens. Better, then, to come up with six contemporary short stories, and six classic stories, that have all had this effect on me. While my intention has been to largely stay away from stories already chosen in previous anthologies, many of the authors below have been featured before. And with good reason. They are all past – or contemporary – masters of fiction’s most challenging form. 

‘No More Than a Bubble’ by Jamel Brinkley

When two black students, Ben and Claudius, crash a Brooklyn house party thrown by Harvard grads, they meet their match in Sybil and Iris, two ‘wild women’ whom they spend the whole evening pursuing, until they’re taken back for a night of carnal promise. So far so formulaic, yet the story is dazzling in its reach, covering notions of intimacy, boundaries and thresholds, male vulnerability, race, class and sexuality. Brinkley pulls off this narrative feat with three effortlessly interwoven time-frames. There’s the present, from which the story is recounted, the party, which took place twenty-five years ago, and the deep past, in which Brinkley explores the mixed-race narrator’s relationship with his Italian father, a man whose face had ‘collapsed like a piece of rotting fruit’. Its closing moments – rich, complex, contradictory – in which the narrator’s true sexual identity is disclosed, are among the best in recent short fiction.  

First published in LitMag#2, 2018. Collected in A Lucky Man, Serpent’s Tail, 2019

‘Tikkun’ by Ayelet Tsabari

Set in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv during the second Intifada, ‘Tikkun’ is the story of a chance meeting of old lovers, and their attempts to make amends for their past. The title refers to ‘the kabbalistic idea of repairing past mistakes in order to achieve balance in the world’. When Lior encounters Natalie in a Jerusalem coffee shop, he’s thirty-five and drifting through life. In the years since Natalie broke his heart ‘and stomped it with both feet’, she’s become Orthodox and married a man who can’t provide her with children. The conversation is awkward and full of old regrets and they part suddenly. Only when the café is blown up by a suicide bomber later in the day are they forced to make amends for the past and provision for the future – in Lior’s case, faith, in Natalie’s, a child. Full of sparkling imagery evoking two cities – one ‘steeped in its own juices, smelling of ripe garbage and swathed in dust and sand’, another ‘lush with olive and cypress trees’ – the story is a profound investigation into chance, love, belief and everything that gives life meaning.  

Published as a Kindle standalone by HarperCollins, 2013 and collected in The Best Place on Earth, Harper Collins, 2013

‘Little Ones’ by Ben Halls

A stand-out story from one of the best collections of 2020, ‘Little Ones’ is the story of a bouncer who works the door of a pub on the fictional Quarry Lane estate in west London; a tale that manages to be funny and moving while exploding the myth of masculine invulnerability. Most of the story’s length is taken up with the mundane chat of the doormen; exemplars of emotional inarticulacy, especially when talking about having children – the little ones of the title – or the children who are no longer with them. Like the other stories in the collection, it pivots on a moment of unexpected tenderness and human connection, one which comes at the very end when the narrator makes an unplanned detour on his drive home from his shift; a heartbreaking mission all the more arresting for its lack of saccharine sentiment or bombast. 

First published in The Quarry, Dialogue Books, 2020

‘Above the Wedding’ by Chris Power

Polished, sure-voiced, tense, like all the stories in Chris Power’s debut collection, ‘Above the Wedding’ takes the reader somewhere unexpected. A sensitive portrayal of the relationship between brothers Liam and Cameron – and of a forbidden gay relationship – the story encompasses myriad locations, moving through Brixton, Berlin, Nice, Acapulco, finally to an episode of epic drinking in Mexico City; an excruciating ten-day wedding, during which the male narrator realises he’s hopelessly in love with the groom. The story is brimming with stunning imagery, much of which is richly associative. The moon is a ‘severed head’. A sea-bed statue of the Virgin Mary, seen from a glass-bottomed boat, takes Liam back to the parish church of his youth. And the rabbits he awakes to at dawn after his drunken epiphany are symbolic of thwarted lust; with real love eternally elusive: ‘rabbits all around him, clinging to the grass with hunched intensity, their coats splashed with silver’.

First published in Mothers, Faber, 2018

‘Black-Eyed Women’ by Viet Thanh Nguyen

The past and its long, reach into the future is expertly explored in this complex, tightly-interleaved story of a family’s escape from war-torn Vietnam. Told through the eyes of a female ghost-writer now living with her mother in America, the story begins when she’s visited by the ghost of her long-dead brother, setting off a chain of buried memories. Her past is one of ‘shattered palm trees and bomb craters. At the time, this was a normal childhood’. It’s gradually revealed that during their escape with a hundred others on ‘a fishing boat meant only to hold a fishing boat’s crew’, she evaded sexual assault only because of her brother’s bravery, an act for which he paid with his life. Both deeply political and personal, it’s a story of hauntings, and learning to move on from being paralysed by the past. It’s also about the revisionist stories we tell ourselves in order to get through life; ‘Stories are just things we fabricate, nothing more. We search for them in a world besides our own, then leave them here to be found, garments shed by ghosts’.

First published in Epoch, 64.2, and collected in The Refugees, Corsair, 2017. Read it online at Electric Literature

‘Shadow Families’ by Mia Alvar

Taken from the debut collection of short stories by New York-based Filipina writer Mia Alvar, ‘Shadow Families’ focuses on the social division between the rich Filipina wives and the katulong, or ‘helpers’ who come ‘to clean floors or mind rich people’s children . . . often younger than we were but always ageing faster . . . their spines hunching over brooms and basins, their lungs fried by bleach and petroleum vapours’. Alvar’s characters, almost without exception, are members of the Philippine diaspora – economic migrants who have travelled to the Middle East or the States to work as maids, chauffeurs, or nurses. Set in Bahrain, the story juxtaposes immense wealth with the poverty of the katulong; a world with a melange of religions – Catholicism, Islam, Buddhism – and conflicting views on sexual propriety. A rare example of a story narrated in the first-person plural – ‘we’ – this formal choice is immensely effective in conveying the way society’s marginalised are always viewed collectively rather than individually.

First published in Five Chapters, collected in In the Country, Oneworld, 2015

‘A Day in the Country’ by Guy de Maupassant, translated by David Coward

With Maupassant’s characteristic oscillation between the salacious and the highly moral, this is a tale of lust in a sylvan setting; one alive to the brevity of life, and the importance of enjoying earthly pleasures while there’s still time. A story of transgression crashing in on bourgeoise complacency, it centres on the wife and daughter of Monsieur Dufour as they are pursued by two young bucks on a day trip to the country. Maupassant manages to make the old trope of the forest as a site of danger and licence somehow fresh and alive. When the daughter Henriette finally succumbs her seducer, the passage in which nature mirrors the act of lovemaking – a necessary fig leaf for late nineteenth-century sensibilities – anticipates the lyrical flights of Lawrence:  

The bird went into raptures, and its call, slowly gathering speed like a house which catches fire or a passion which grows, seemed the accompaniment to a crackle of kisses beneath the tree. The ecstasy of its song turned into a frenzy. It held long, swooning, single notes and burst into wild spasms of melody… At last it fell silent, and to its ears came the sound of a moan so devout that it might have been mistaken for a soul bidding farewell to life.

First published as ‘Partie de campagne’ in La Vie modern, April 1881, collected in A Day in the Country and Other Stories, Oxford World’s Classics, 1990

‘Souls Belated’ by Edith Wharton

Set in her customary milieu of upper-class East Coast American society, Wharton’s story is the saga of Lydia and Gannet, their illicit affair, and Lydia’s divorce from her husband. As they travel though Italy with Lydia’s divorce papers in her luggage, the way ahead to a blissful married future seems clear. Except it’s not – complicated emotions, doubts and fears cloud any vision of harmony, as Wharton painstakingly dissects their relationship. While the story is in one sense a sober satire of late nineteenth-century society, with its strictures and constraints, it’s more an exploration of the how unknowable people are, even those closest to us. Wharton reinforces this with the constantly shifting POVs – never a very successful tactic in short stories, given the concentration of the form – exposing just how differently Lydia and Gannet see each other and the world. At the end, this distance is deftly bridged by the sound of the steamboat that is to take Lydia away: ‘He and she, at that moment, were both listening to the same sound: the whistle of the boat as it rounded the nearest promontory’. The story’s closing moments when they part and seem to reconsider are tortuous and beautiful in their fidelity to lived experience. 

First published in The Greater Inclination, Scribner, 1899. Collected in The Reckoning and Other Stories, Phoenix Orion, 1999

‘The Widow’ by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

‘The Widow’ is one of the best stories in Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s career-capping At the End of the Century, a collection which takes stories from across her previously published volumes. Anita Desai, in her introduction, rightly says of ‘The Widow’, ‘the voice, the point of view, is so perfectly captured, one would not add or alter a single word for greater effect’. This could perhaps describe the ideal short story; it sums up the perfection to which the form aspires. Here, Durga, a woman still in her prime becomes a widow after her old and impotent husband dies. She quickly finds her relatives become vultures, coveting her house, and prescribing how she should conduct her life. When she becomes enamoured of her tenant’s teenage son, things can only end badly. A triumph of telling over showing – to invert the creative writing maxim – ‘The Widow’ forcefully skewers hypocritical moralising at every turn with its plain, ironic tone: ‘The relatives were glad that Durga had at last come round and accepted her lot as a widow. They were glad for her sake. There was no other way for widows but to lead humble, bare lives: it was for their own good. For if they were allowed to feed themselves on the pleasures of the world, then they fed their own passions too, and that which should have died in them with the deaths of their husbands would fester and boil and overflow into sinful channels’. 

First published in The New Yorker, August 1963. Collected in Like Birds, Like Fishes, and Other Stories, John Murray, 1963, and At the End of the Century, Little, Brown, 2017

‘Autumn Rain’ by Yasunari Kawabata, translated by J. Martin Holman

Not as lionised or as well-known as either Mishima or Tanizaki, Nobel laureate Kawabata was easily their equal, as exemplified by his compact novels, Thousand CranesBeauty and Sadness and Snow Country. He was equally masterful when it came to the short story. The short tales collected in Palm-of-the-Hand Stories are almost a precursor of flash fiction, given their brevity and density of thought, emotion and observation. ‘Autumn Rain’ begins with the line: ‘Deep in my soul I saw a vision of fire falling on mountains red with autumn leaves’ and continues with the same intensity, until it suddenly switches to more quotidian matters. The narrator is a man travelling by train to Kyoto to see a girl he remembered from a hospital when she was a baby, born at the same time as another girl who died. Now in the prime of her life, the girl who survived is about to be married. The nature of the narrator’s link to the girl is opaque – is he her father? Or was the girl who died his daughter? Or did he even aspire to marry the girl herself? The story is too brief to provide the answers. Yet the imagery of decay and death, of fire and water, of vulnerable children, adds up to a poignant picture of the fragility of life, and mankind’s tenuous place in the universe.  

Collected in Palm-of-the-Hand Stories, Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1988

‘One Warm Saturday’ by Dylan Thomas

No writer’s short stories are more bursting with rude, salty life that those of Dylan Thomas, and ‘One Warm Saturday’ is a fine example. It’s the story of a Bank Holiday romance, infused with youthful longing and lust, as well as a sense of life’s inevitable disappointments waiting just around the corner. The tale begins with Jack, ‘a young man in a sailor’s jersey, sitting near the summer huts to see the brown and white women coming out and the groups of pretty-faced girls with pale vees and scorched backs who picked their way delicately on ugly, red-toed feet over the sharp stones to the sea’. When he meets the earthy Lou later in the pub, he’s persuaded by the shifty Mr O’Brien – the man she lives with – to take a bottle back to her place. The story’s power comes from the distance between Jack’s naivety and the reader’s knowledge of the worldly people he becomes entangled with over the course of a boozy evening. For Jack, Lou is ‘a wise, soft girl whom no hard company could spoil for her soft self’, but we fear the worst. When he goes to visit the ‘House of Commons’ – a toilet on the floor below – he returns to find a night of erotic promise reduced to ashes, with Lou and everyone else suddenly vanished. The lush imagery of the opening paragraphs morphs into some of the most barren lines ever to finish a story: ‘Up the rotten, bruising, mountainous stairs he climbed, in his sickness, to the passage where he had left the the one light burning in an end room…The light of the one weak lamp in a rusty circle fell across  the brick heaps and the broken wood and the dust that had been houses once’.

First published in Life and Letters Today, 1940, and collected in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, JM Dent & Sons, 1940, most recent edition from Weidenfeld & Nicholson. Also in the Collected Stories and Omnibus

‘By the St. Lawrence’ by Saul Bellow

‘By the St. Lawrence’ is Bellow’s last short story, published in 1995, when the novelist was 80. It travels deeply into the mysterious realm of childhood, with its indelible experiences still pin-sharp decades later. In this, it’s a universal story, though the scenes it revisits are unique to Bellow’s Canadian childhood. Bellow’s stand-in is Rexler, ‘the man who wrote all those books on theatre and cinema in Weimar Germany’, who returns to his home town of Lachine after an illness that almost ended his life. The time is right to revisit old haunts and meditate on existence before the inevitable: ‘He saw death as a magnetic field every living thing must enter’. The story’s core is Rexler’s incredibly vivid boyhood memory of seeing a man killed on a level crossing: ‘not the corpse, but his organs on the roadbed – first the man’s liver, shining on the white, egg-shaped stones, and a little beyond it his lungs. More than anything it was the lungs – Rexler couldn’t get over the twin lungs crushed out of the man by the train when it tore his body open’. That these images have travelled with him, buried, his whole life, is a wonder for Rexler. For him – and Bellow too, we imagine – such persistent memories are at the heart of what makes life such a maddening, insoluble mystery.

First published in Esquire, 1995, collected in Collected Stories, Penguin, 2001