‘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

‘Shirley from a Small Place’ by Alexia Arthurs

Arthurs writes in a beautifully unpretentious manner that weaves in shrewd social observations with great emotional acuity. The Shirley in this story is obviously based on Rihanna, and I love the chutzpah and sheer sense of fun in that! From the obvious Rihanna references (who doesn’t love Rihanna?) to its incredibly “literary” title, this story is both a hoot and technically impressive. With such a premise it might easily have veered toward yet another commentary about celebrity culture that perpetuates the vapidity, excess and so-whatness it critiques – but what you get instead is a moving study of the complex, tensile currents of feeling between mothers and daughters.

First published in Granta 143, July 2019 and available online here. Collected in How to Love a Jamaican, Picador, 2018

‘Something That Needs Nothing’/ Making Love in 2003’ by Miranda July

“In an ideal world, we would have been orphans.” Two sad, strange and brilliant stories about eviscerating loneliness. One involves a stripper in an itchy wig, hopelessly in love with her callous best friend; the other, intensely and almost defiantly twee and weird, involves an intergalactic dark blob that deflowers the narrator. July writes with a mordant directness that conveys great emotional depth and complexity.

First published in The New Yorker, September 2006 and available online here. Collected in No one belongs here more than you, Canongate, 2007

‘Mr Wu’/ ‘Bettering Myself’ by Ottessa Moshfegh

I first encountered these stories in The Paris Review and what a fitting introduction to the id-driven, shame-fuelled, funny and disgusting world that Moshfegh creates. My Year of Rest and Relaxation was my favourite book of last year and I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next.

‘Mr Wu’ first published as ‘Disgust’ in The Paris Review 202, 2012. ‘Bettering Myself’ first published in The Paris Review 204, 2013. Collected in Homesick for Another World, Jonathan Cape, 2017

‘Vampires in the Lemon Grove’/’The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutiss’ by Karen Russell

Russell has been writing horror-infused feminist literary fiction for years, way ahead of the current curve. ‘Vampires’ showcases her humour and tremendous, elastic imagination, using conditional immortality as a metaphor for long-term relationships. ‘Eric Mutiss’ has the verve and energy of a campfire story, but is haunted by melancholy. It’s a story about how cruel and rejecting we can be to each other.

‘Vampires’ first published in American Zoetrope: All Story, 2007. ‘Graveless Doll’ first published in Conjunctions 55, Fall 2010 and available as audio here. Both collected in Vampires in the Lemon Grove, Chatto & Windus, 2013

‘Would Like To Meet’ by May-Lan Tan

This story ends unforgettably with a ring tone of Lou Reed singing ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ closing the book on a literal note of melancholy optimism. It’s one of the quieter, gentler stories in a brashly and unabashedly brilliant and original collection, charged with so much honesty and feeling that it lingers for years.

First published in Things to Make and Break, CB Editions, 2014. New edition from Sceptre, 2018

‘Orchid’ by Mary Gaitskill

Mary Gaitskill is one of the best writers alive today and way ahead of her time. I have no doubt if she were a man she’d be as venerated as Philip Roth or Don Delillo. She’s best known for ‘Secretary’ and Bad Behaviour, and she writes about sexual and emotional politics with a bruise-eyed, wary incisiveness like no other. She’s sharp, but tender-hearted. This story stands out because it’s about a not-quite sexual, not-quite romantic relationship between a queer woman and a once-beautiful boy. The scenes between them glow and ache with unspoken regrets and inchoate longing – not for each other, but for the promise of past selves.

First published in Because They Wanted To, Simon & Schuster, 1997