A few years ago, I undertook a challenge of reading a short story every day for an entire year (it’s a New Year’s resolution I’d highly recommend, and one I really should embark on once more in 2022). I actively sought voices I’d not connected with before, or classics that had escaped my attention, or works by debut writers that might have slipped under my radar. This is my anthology of a selection of short stories I read that year and want to share with others.
The first short story I read on 1 January, as part of my “year of reading short stories”, was one by Chart Korbjitti, called ‘The Personal Knife’. Kortbjitti is a Thai author, and I found a collection of his, An Ordinary Story (and Others Less So) translated by Marcel Barang, in a second-hand bookshop in Bangkok (the collection is a retrospective of Korbjitti’s short fiction from 1981 to 2006). ‘The Personal Knife’ is a dark and unsettling, overtly political story about a father taking his son to a dinner party for extremely rich and privileged guests, each of whom have their own personal knife for the very special meal ahead. But the father is concerned at his son’s underwhelmed reaction to his environment and the luxuries on offer: “My son sat listening listlessly. I was reflecting that he should have shown more enthusiasm and was rather worried he’d turn out to be an inferior being. His eyes didn’t have that famished look ours have.” But the reader soon discovers that what gets served up is beyond palatable: “A trolley was being pushed in on which lay the body of a young man, naked but for steel straps around his arms, waist and legs […] Nobody could see his face, nobody knew who he was.” The son has to be coerced into using his knife, and getting a taste of what’s on offer: “Go on, taste it. Don’t bother yourself too much with morals. Morals is for inferior folk.” The Personal Knife’ is a visceral, gut-turning story, offering a glimpse of our most selfish sides. Modern readers might not find this tale of cannibalism screamingly original, but it was written in 1983, and at the time, was a creative and controlled attack on Thailand’s privileged classes.
First published in English in An Ordinary Story and Others Less So, Howling Books, 2010
During the short-story-a-day challenge, I also found myself drawn for the first time to an incredible Mexican writer, Guadalupe Nettel. I was seduced by the five short stories in her collection, Natural Histories (translated by JT Lichtenstein). One of the stories that stands out in my memory is ‘Fungus’. Perhaps because it deals with a particularly unsettling topic for a short story. It begins: “When I was a little girl, my mother had a fungus on one of her toenails…” We go on to discover that the protagonist has an incurable fungus of her own, caught from a lover, which she cultivates compulsively, as a way to maintain a connection with a failed love affair. “Parasites – I understand this now – we are unsatisfied beings by nature. Neither the nourishment nor the attention we receive will ever be enough. The secrecy that ensures our survival often frustrates us.” I’ve since read Nettel’s work in Granta, and she has a new novel (her fourth) out in August 2022, called Still Born (translated by Rosalind Harvey), which deals with themes of maternal ambivalence.
First published in Natural Histories, Seven Stories Press, 2013
This humorous short story is about the blurred line between fact and fiction, and explores what happens when greed hijacks truth: “I am a publisher. I publish any sort of book. I am looking for a book that will sell five hundred thousand copies.” ‘The IOU’ was written in 1920, five years before the publication of Fitzgerald’s acclaimed novel, The Great Gatsby, at a time when the author was just twenty-three years old. It remained unpublished until 2017, when it appeared for the first time in The New Yorker. At its heart, ‘The IOU’ is a story about fake news, and continues to be relevant more than a century after it was written. The protagonist is the publisher of a superbly successful book, who takes a train journey to meet his best-selling author, when, by chance, he meets the person who is the subject of the book, whose very existence discredits the story. The unscrupulous publisher grapples with the ethics at play: “I considered quickly whether I could change all the names and shift the book from my nonfiction to my fiction. But it was too late even for this. Three hundred thousand copies were in the hands of the American public.” The story is an entertaining romp of conflicted interests. And of course, the author and publisher get their comeuppance – thanks to the existence of a forgotten, but measly, IOU.
First published in The New Yorker, March 2017, and available for subscribers to read there
This story comes from a collection of Nordic short stories, The Dark Blue Winter Overcoat, edited by the Icelandic writer Sjón and Ted Hodgkinson. ‘The White-Bear King Valemon’ is written by the Swedish writer Linda Boström Knausgård (who was once married to Karl Ove Knausgård). Her story, which brings to mind the language and landscapes of Angela Carter, is a rewriting of a classic and well-known Nordic fairy tale of the same name – and is a tragic version of the myth of Eros and Psyche. Boström Knausgård’s version begins with a child living at the edge of a forest, which seems to call to her. “My name is Ellinor and I have a wish. The crown of gold I see in my dreams at night. I want it. It’s the only thing I want.” Ellinor leaves her unsettled home, drawn to the mythic and the wild. The child grows up, and falls in love with a majestic bear. Of course, an emotional and physical battle ensues. “My anger at this now being my life, the anger that rose up in me when all else was erased, was what made me go on, though my strength was long gone, had seeped away, shed onto the senseless rock.” ‘The White-Bear King Valemon’ is ultimately a coming-of-age story – one of transformation, and of the pleasure and perils of discovering who you are.
First published in Swedish in 2011, and in English in The Dark Blue Winter Overcoat, edited by Sjón and Ted Hodgkinson, Pushkin Press, 2017
The American writer Miranda July was shortlisted for the Sunday Times Short Story Award in 2018, and I remember reading her knowing, deviant story, ‘The Metal Bowl’, over lunch at work, and laughing out loud as this eccentric story progressed. In it, I connected with so many great sentences (the kind of thoughts that you think are unique, as you haven’t seen articulated before, but the writer puts them clearly on the page): “If I went to the mall immediately and got a new sheet, then the chore wouldn’t have time to gather weight. Once a task goes on the to-do list it settles in, grows roots – the trick is to pre-empt that.” ‘The Metal Bowl’ is about a woman who is grappling with ageing, with domesticity and the tedium of marriage – and who is haunted by an adult video she filmed in her youth. “The video shoot became the central sexual experience of my life; to this day, I can’t orgasm unless I imagine that I’m the pale man, the dad, or the young lesbian watching it, sometimes all of them together, crowded around one computer screen.” The protagonist wants to feel alive – and wanted – again, and finds a moment of clarity and sexual tension with her neighbour during an earthquake. But it is short-lived. “Joel had taken the exquisite energy of our experience and ploughed it back into his marriage. How wise. This option had never occurred to me.” The narrator ultimately reconnects with her husband in a gloriously outlandish (and remarkably touching) scene, involving the title’s metal bowl.
First published in The New Yorker, 4 September 2017. You can read it online here or listen to it read aloud by novelist Emma Cline here. The story was shortlisted for the Sunday Times / Audible Short Story Award in 2018, there’s an interview with Miranda July here.
The wonderful British writer Leone Ross attended one of the Word Factory literary soirees, at which I work, alongside the organisation’s founder Cathy Galvin, and gave a reading of this deeply strange and supernatural story, ‘The Mullerian Eminence’ from her collection Come, Let Us Sing Anyway (and I immediately went away to devour the other twenty-two stories in that exceptional book). Everyone in the room, as Ross read it out loud, was spellbound as we heard this magic-realist story about disembodied hymens, which slide with ease out of their host bodies, carelessly discarded; only to end up gathering dust behind a cupboard or to be stumbled over on the streets of the city. Each one, like a fingerprint, is unique and has a tale to tell: “A golden cobweb”, “thin silk”, “glimmering wrought iron”. The medical phrase found in the title, “Mullerian eminence”, refers to the hymen which, apparently, has no useful part to play in the anatomy of a body. Before long, a man discovers these superfluous cast-offs, and is able to tune into their chorus, as they recount their experience of sexual violence. ‘The Mullerian Eminence’ was such a surreal, strange and deeply powerful story – listening to it was something like a hallucination – that nobody could speak for a few minutes afterwards… until the applause began.
First published in Closure: Black British Contemporary Writing, edited by Jacob Ross, Peepal Tree Press, 2015. Collected in Come, Let Us Sing Anyway, Peepal Tree Press, 2017
Zoe Gilbert and I co-founded the Word Factory short story club in 2014, and she went on to publish Folk in 2018 – which was longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize. It’s billed as a novel, but I read it as a luminous collection of fifteen interlinked, spell-like allegorical stories, set on the remote island village of Neverness. Folk is full of poetry, conjuring up the scent of gorse, the island’s craggy coastline and beguiling characters, such as Verlyn, a boy born with a wing for an arm. The story I particularly connected with is the melancholic ‘Fishskin, Hareskin’, which won the Costa Short Story Award in 2014. It’s about a fishwife named Ervet, who is newly married, but she cannot let go of the desire for her old life. Ervet’s mother-in-law scolds her: “‘What,’ she asks Ervet, ‘have you been finding to do all the long day that’s more pressing than making spick and span for your husband?’” Ervet’s husband is a fisherman, who often leaves for long voyages on the sea, so Ervet dangerously makes references to hares – an animal with which she has a deep connection – as a way to keep him close. “It was one of the first lessons in Turpin’s house: no speaking of hares, no thinking of them, even, if Ervet wished her new husband to return safe in his fishing boat. A hare is the worst bad luck for a fisherman.” Ervet becomes a reluctant mother and goes on to reject her baby (continually referred to as a fish) – and the crisis point of the story is reached when Ervet takes the baby away, to be wrapped in the skins of her beloved hares. Zoe’s writing draws deeply on Angela Carter and the Brothers Grimm to conjure a magical and murky world.
First published on Word Factory, 2014 and available to read here. Collected in Folk, Bloomsbury, 2018
This story by Alison MacLeod is the one we read as part of the Word Factory short story club that provoked the strongest response from members. ‘Sylvia Wears Pink in the Underworld’ is from the Canadian-born writer’s 2017 collection, All the Beloved Ghosts, which was shortlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize. The narrator takes the reader to Sylvia Plath’s grave in Heptonstall, Yorkshire, and conjures up a supernatural conversation by holding a wine glass to the poet’s headstone. She goes on to re-imagine a happy ending for the late poet, who committed suicide in 1963. And in doing so, Sylvia is seen with her husband, Ted Hughes, travelling the River Styx. The title refers to Sylvia’s pink dress, which she wore on her wedding day. The language at times is reminiscent of Plath’s poetry: “In suburban-esque gardens, clumps of forget-me-nots insist as delicately, and as forgettably, as they do every year. (They are pale things compared with the wild alkanet that has colonised your grave.)” A real-life and much-loved subject can be a challenge for a writer, but can connect powerfully with readers if done with sympathy and finesse, which MacLeod achieves.
First published in All the Beloved Ghosts, Bloomsbury, 2017. Also available to read on LitHub
‘Sweat’ is an iconic story by the American writer Zora Neale Hurston, who was born in 1891. It was first published in 1926 in a magazine named Fire!!, and revolves around a washerwoman, Delia – who cleans “white folks” clothes in her home – and her unemployed, insecure and abusive husband, Sykes. Their dynamic is fraught, and Sykes exploits Delia’s fear of snakes, which backfires to result in a karmic and poignant ending. The story, in the century since it was written, has been hailed “an ecofeminist masterclass in dialect and symbolism”. The dialogue is particularly powerful, and effectively allows the reader to ‘hear’ the voices of the main characters: “Sykes, what you throw dat whip on me like dat? You know it would skeer me – looks just like a snake, an’ you knows how skeered Ah is of snakes.” It’s worth reading it aloud (or listening to it spoken) to get the rhythm of it and appreciate the author’s intentions fully. Ultimately, ‘Sweat’ is a story about power and the suffocation of an abusive marriage, and how hope fails to thrive in such an environment, to the point where revenge is inevitable: “He crept an inch or two toward her – all that he was able, and she saw his horribly swollen neck and his one open eye shining with hope.”
First published in 1926 in Fire!!, available to read online on Biblioklept here
“My husband is not a kind man and with him, I am not a good person.” This is how the short story, The Mark of Cain, by the American writer Roxane Gay, begins. It is one of twenty-one stories in her debut collection Difficult Women. This one in particular is an attention-grabbing tale of a woman who is married to a man who has an identical twin brother. “It is nearly impossible to tell Caleb and Jacob apart. They have the same physique, the same haircut, the same mannerisms. Neither of them snores.” The two brothers keep switching places with each other, so that she is effectively married to two different people. “I married Caleb but I prefer Jacob’s company. When Jacob and I make love, there is a sorrowful kindness to his touch. I never worry about being left asunder.” One man is tender and loving, the other, the complete opposite, and the main character never knows who she is going to get that day. It’s a beautiful, well-crafted story that pulses with female rage and desire, and offers no easy platitudes about how these Jekyll and Hyde situations will ever be resolved: “As the doctor glides the sonogram wand across the lower round of my belly, she turns a knob on the machine. ‘Do you hear that?’ she asks. The room is silent but for the identical flutters of two heartbeats.”
First published in Elle, Jaunary 2017, and available to read online here. Collected in Difficult Women, Grove Atlantic/Corsair, 2017
This story, from a fourteen-story collection called The Secrets of a Fire King (which was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award), is about the world of Marie Curie – the Polish-born French physicist, famous for her work on radioactivity – and is set in France at the start of the twentieth century. It is told from the deathbed perspective of a curious cleaner, Madame Bonvin, who worked in the two-time Nobel Laureate’s laboratory. At that time, Madame Bonvin was an uneducated French woman who has no understanding of the scientific advances being made by Curie, but possesses knowledge that the scientist doesn’t: “Long before she was famous in the world for her mind, Madame was famous in the market for her shopping […] The things any ordinary housewife knew, she did not understand…” It transpires that the cleaner idolises the scientist, and wanders around the lab at night, marvelling at what is taking place in the jars around her. From her deathbed, she reflects back on an image of “those jars, glowing a soft blue on the rough wooden tables, like a treasure in the back of my mind”, and she goes on to equate them to a human soul. Curie’s scientific advances, that the cleaner so admires, later leads to the development of X-rays, but also (unintentionally) to much more terrible things: the atom bomb: “There is terror now, yes, but truly the beginning was magnificent to behold.” Madame Bonvin continues: “Her work exploded with the violence of a thousand suns, but I must tell her it was not her fault, the way they twisted her creation, tampered with her dreams.” A Gleaming in the Darkness is about grief, persistence and sacrifice, the bittersweet nature of memory, and the terrible cost of what makes us human.
First published in The Secrets of a Fire King, Norton, 1997
The last short story I read as part of my challenge that year was The Last Night of the World by the science-fiction legend Ray Bradbury (I’d highly recommend his book on writing, Zen and the Art of Writing). This story begins when a husband asks his wife, “What would you do if you knew that this was the last night of the world?” She asks if he’s means there’s a war coming, an atomic bomb, or germ warfare. Stirring his coffee, the man says: “But just, let’s say, the closing of a book.” He predicts that it’s the last night of the world because of an ominous dream, one his colleagues have also reported. There’s a calm, accepting attitude throughout, and the woman goes on to ask her husband if they “deserve” the end of the world. He assures her that it has nothing to do with “deserving.” After putting the kids to bed, the husband and wife spend their last night together in the most ordinary manner – washing dishes, playing a game. The man asks his wife if she thinks they’ve been “bad”, She says no, but they haven’t been “enormously good” either. She thinks that’s the root of the problem: “We haven’t been very much of anything except us, while a big part of the world was busy being lots of quite awful things.” In bed, they kiss each other. He says: “We’ve been good for each other, anyway.” The story forces its readers to reconsider an age-old question about how we choose to live our lives, about the inherent value of the ordinary moments – and sheds new light on what bravery and courage look like in the face of an inevitable ending.
First published in the February 1951 issue of Esquire and available to read here. Collected in Stories Volume 1, HarperVoyager, 1980