‘Only Goodness’ by Jhumpa Lahiri / ‘Evolution of My Brother’ by Jenny Zhang

Lahiri and Zhang write in contrasting styles: Lahiri’s is sparsely elegant and coolly restrained whilst Zhang’s sentences spark and flow with an at times lurid emotionality, a frank and unbridled access to humour and pain. These two stories centre upon difficult brothers and the older sisters who love and come to be hurt and puzzled by them. Both stories arrive at devastation in their own messy, specific ways, but overlap in articulating the genealogy of siblinghood from shared traumas and a mutual understanding of otherness, to the slow-burning heartbreak of estrangement.

‘Only Goodness’ from Unaccustomed Earth, Knopf/Bloomsbury, 2008. Also available as a digital single from Bloomsbury. ‘Evolution of My Brother’ first published in Rookie Mag, 2011. Collected in Sour Heart, Lenny/Bloomsbury 2017

‘Free Love’ by Ali Smith

Smith uses clean and unsentimental language to make the reader feel a great deal. This is down to tremendous technical control and faculties of perceptiveness and compassion. ‘Free Love’ is a story of lesbian sexual discovery with an optimistic, bittersweet ending. It reads like real life. You can just picture the Amsterdam of this story in summertime: all canals and sunshine, a site of desire and potential, full of hope and openness and heady, finite young love.

From Free Love, Virago, 1995

‘Louisa, Please Come Home’ by Shirley Jackson

Plaintive and haunting in a quieter, more heartbreaking way than the rest of her formidable oeuvre, Jackson takes the trope of the missing woman on the lam and turns it into an exploration of family dynamics, public mourning, and the erosion – and precariousness – of identity.

First published in Ladies’ Home Journal, 1960. Collected in Come Along with Me, Viking, 1968 and, more recently, in Dark Tales, Penguin Classics, 2016

‘The Lady of the House of Love’ by Angela Carter 

I read this when I was fourteen and it blew my mind. The writing felt wonderfully overwrought and iconoclastic. It’s a meet-not-cute (a meet-mute?) haunted by the carnal realities of decrepitude and fucking. Peak Carter: bawdy and romantic, gritty and baroque. I can picture it as a cinematic cross between a Luis Bunuel and Sofia Coppola film. Crumbling Tarot cards, a rose the colour of dried-up menstrual blood.

First published in The Iowa Review, Summer/Autumn 1975, and available online here in slightly different form. Collected in The Bloody Chamber, Gollancz, 1979, currently available from Vintage, 1995, and in Burning Your Boats: Collected Stories, Vintage, 1996.

‘Dido’s Lament’ by Tessa Hadley

This zips along, charged with awkward tension. A masterclass in the small gesture or detail that unravels a whole realm of fraught, teeming feelings; it’s a love-hate-old-love story about incompatible people sharing history, and all the burdensome nostalgia and regret that entails.

First published in The New Yorker, August 2016. Available online here