Paul McVeigh’s novel The Good Son (2015) conveyed to me more of the atmosphere of the Troubles in Northern Ireland than any number of factual accounts. Its hero, young Mickey Donnelly, was introduced to readers some fifteen years earlier in this short story. Mickey’s voice and his feistiness are there, loud and clear, and McVeigh is already showing his ability to navigate the geography of both the Ardoyne and the human heart with great precision. Remarkably, he says this was his first attempt at prose, never mind a short story!
The summer holidays were near at hand when I made up my mind to break out of the weariness of school life for one day at least.
He gave me the impression that he was repeating something which he had learned by heart or that, magnetized by some words of his own speech, his mind was slowly circling round and round in the same orbit.
“I say! Look what he’s doing!”
As I neither answered nor raised my eyes, Mahony exclaimed again:
“I say . . . He’s a queer old josser!”
Fourteen other short stories make up Dubliners – the greatest of all short story collections, each exploring themes of loss, inertia, indecision and flight. They were published when the author was still in his early twenties. You could read one a day for two weeks.
This story begins in medias res, as if, like Pegman on Google’s Street View, the reader is dragged and dropped into the narrative on a sizzling Japanese beach, “…and so my timing was thrown off. And so a space opened in my emotions.” These are the summers we all can’t quite remember – the summer of our burgeoning sexuality, of our changing bodies in our brand-new swimsuits, of our crushing crushes and fizzing desires, of being stung by jellyfish, burned by the sun and scorched by first love.
Yūko Tsushima (1947-2016) was the daughter of the extraordinary Japanese novelist Osamu Dazai (check out his No Longer Human in all its Japanese existential autobiographical angst). Her father had left the family home to live with his mistress and, just after Yūko’s first birthday, he and his lover had committed suicide by drowning themselves in the Tamagawa Aqueduct. There is a lot of water in Tsushima’s work, a lot of death, a lot of missing fathers, and her fiction concentrates on abandoned woman fighting their way in a misogynist society, a feminist viewpoint against a male-dominated society.
The story has similarities to Yukio Mishima’s ‘Death in Midsummer’, which also concerns sunburns, sandcastles, the sea, death, fathers and also has a character called Keiko. Tsushima’s work is sparse and incandescent, dreamlike while dealing with real problems. For further reading, go to Territory of Light and Child of Fortune, both Penguin Modern Classics. Another of her summer stories I could have chosen – ‘The Watery Realm’ – is in the pocket-sized Penguin Modern series along with ‘Of Dogs and Walls’.
There is more than one summer-themed story in Chris Power’s sparkling debut collection. I could just have easily picked ‘Innsbruck’, the second of the three linked stories about a woman called Eva that give the book not just its spine but also its central nervous system – but I’ve gone for ‘The Colossus of Rhodes’. Power splits the story between a recent family holiday (his unnamed narrator is married, with two young children) and a long-distant one, when he was ten years old. There are delicately sketched pen-portraits of the various family members, and a couple of luminous ‘spots-of-time’ moments that suck the story into them like a whirlpool*, but what I really love is the elegant way it unpacks itself at the end, making this the perfect story for our autofictional times. It doesn’t matter how closely Power’s ‘real’ life and experiences might happen to align themselves with his narrator’s fictional ones; what matters is how deftly he teases away at that border, and the conundrum it poses, which is where we seem to be looking, most often and most closely, for our meaning in literature just now.
* One of these moments, serendipitously enough, makes direct reference to another story picked in this summer special. You’ll have to read it to find out which.
In Mothers, Faber, 2018. Chosen by Jonathan Gibbs. Read Jonathan’s Personal Anthology here
And, if you reach the beach, walk back across it like everything is fine, toward your family who would not like to see the abyss you have just swum over.
A last line suggestive of a mother’s happy reconciliation with her family after a near-drowning undermines our wilful happily-ever-after with its “if”. Undecided, the story throws the woman back into the sea, keeps her there, “moving arms and legs”, near-drowning, near-happily-ever-after. Not sure. How quickly summer holiday stories turn sinister, or how sea under sun dazzles, makes us giddy. But that’s not what I read here, in this lush story where “The tarmac is a warm body beneath my feet”. What I read is the domestic tyranny, the maternal drudgery that even a holiday, a French village, a strip of sea can’t shake. A woman steps into the sea so as to no longer see whether her partner is choosing to pay attention to their children or choosing to read a book. She swims the channel so as to no longer be able to see, to no longer have to know. It’s a brief act of maternal finitude and one that sheds an acerbic light on parenthood. “Shall I tell you what it is like to drown? It is very calm and quiet.” As in, it is calmer and quieter to drown than to mother?
In Vertigo, And Other Stories, 2016. Chosen by Olivia Heal
I suppose I associate Leesa Cross-Smith with summer because I discovered her in in July of 2014. (I know the date because it’s when I started my Twitter account, and I joined Twitter pretty much to stalk her, I liked her work that much.) I also feel there’s some sort of summery-ness about all her work, whether she’s writing about the season or not: it takes the form of a buoyant energy, a playfulness, a brightness. ‘Out of the Strong, Something Sweet’ is no exception: I read it as soon as it was announced on Twitter (the following paid off!), and I love it because it encapsulates so much about summer, coming of age, female friendship, boys, kissing, and a part of the world not far from where I grew up, without once going exactly where you think it’s going to go. This is the kind of story that lulls you into thinking you know how it’s all going to play out, and then ambushes you with fearless, magical, risk-taking writing that pulls that proverbial rug right out from beneath your feet. I won’t spoil the structural surprise, but my heart thrilled once I reached the first set of three asterisks and watched the piece bloom, stretch and shimmer.
I can’t mention this piece without also noting Jazzmyn Coker’s accompanying artwork, which so perfectly frames this piece.
Published in Paper Darts, 2016) Chosen by Ingrid Jendrzejewski
Set in rural France during the 1950s, this story uses the classic device of terrorising the reader over the fate of a five-year-old child, who is encouraged to enter a locked holiday house via the titular skylight and open the window downstairs. The mother, frazzled from travelling on her own with her son, is nicely drawn. Students I have shared this with have been split over whether she is a victim of circumstance and the age she lives in, or a neurotic idiot who shouldn’t be in charge of a child. I tend towards the former, as a parent of young children who knows it’s not plain sailing. A brilliant piece of ordinary horror and the ending is one of surprise that leaves me reeling after many, many reads.
Collected in Saturday Lunch with The Brownings, 1977) Chosen by Andrew McDonnell
Set during the sweaty Southern Cone summer months, you’ll never experience a “happy couples’ holiday” with your beloved partner in quite the same way again after reading this! I love the slow build-up of tension and dread in this story, the strangeness of its details (like the disappearing fire glimpsed from an airplane), the A.M. Homes-esque brutality of the narrator towards her irritating husband, and the totally out-of-left-field (yet completely perfect) ending. You can’t have a story about disappearances set in the Río Plata area not seem like a commentary on historical atrocities, but the sly way this piece develops and builds upon this theme, in a way you wouldn’t expect, is utterly singular. I suggest reading this with a caipirinha in hand, bugs crawling over your feet, and plenty of sickly-smelling sunscreen burning your eyes.
Although it is set in winter, David Constantine’s superlative ‘Tea at the Midland’ always reminds me of the beaches of north Cornwall where, as a child, I spent two weeks every summer. I have read the first six sentences so many times I’d like to think I could recite them. Take the fifth: “And under that ceaselessly riven sky, riding the furrows and ridges of the sea, were a score or more of surfers towed on boards by kites.” Every time I stand on a sandy British beach nowadays, I think again of this story and I try to remember the way it darts at unexpected angles repeatedly right to the very end. It is almost sinister, it is almost very funny: “So he said again, A paedophile is a paedophile. That’s all there is to it.” You might gasp, but the story keeps turning. The couple are having an affair. They are having cream tea. They are having an argument. It is banal and it is British and it is brilliant. The world shifts. You start again.
Winner of the BBC National Short Story Award, 2010. Collected in Tea at the Midland, Comma Press, 2012) Chosen by Lara Pawson
The sunstroke that gives Tessa Hadley’s wonderful story of the promise and perils of a summer day its title is both literal—a little girl comes down with a fever after playing outside all day—and metaphoric. It could refer to the light beating its way through the leaves of a tree in the shade of which the two main characters, old friends Rachel and Janie, now in their early thirties with fading careers and three kids each, set up camp on a stolen day at the seaside. Or to the pulsations of sensuality that course through each of the women, aware as they are of inhabiting that “piquant moment of change when the outward accidents of flesh are beginning to be sharpened from inside by character and experience.” Or the interruption into orderly lives by the arrival of an unmarried friend.
But while the child recovers quickly, the adults are more easily knocked off their equilibrium. Rachel’s husband, Sam, is a writer, but Janie’s partner has never been able to read past the second chapter: at every moment, the man thinks, the book diverts into thickets of cultural allusions; there isn’t any room for anything to happen. Hadley is no Sam; even though her canvas is small, plenty happens in her story. The events aren’t dramatic—the women exchange confidences; the men overcome awkwardness by smoking up; a couple kiss in the dark. But they promise to be consequential. Yet the consequences aren’t the ones the characters expect. Everyone in the story is on the verge of getting something they think they want, but then they pull back, unsure, finding themselves staring at the possibility of another life, in equal parts excitement and distaste. (Everyone except the children; they take full advantage of the largesse of the glorious Somerset day.)
Hadley does her novelist character one better: she laces these events with oblique references to canonical literature—Virginia Woolf, Henry James—but so gracefully you can admire them or not as you like. In the end, the deepest pleasures of this wise story are its images of summer’s ease: the peace of the afternoon made deeper by the sight of the children’s toys strewn across the lawn; the light from a television silhouetting the heads of the children watching a movie; the sound of a bat stirring the velvety, sumptuous night air. These brushstrokes are Hadley’s masterstroke. Take a minute from your summer to revel in them.
Collected in Sunstroke, Jonathan Cape, 2007) Chosen by Dorian Stuber
The story I’ve selected for the summer personal anthology series is not cheerful or with a holiday aspect, so apologies in advance. But it is set in London, during a very hot summer, and here I am, in London, and it is turning out to be a very hot summer. The story is about a terrible loss, and the emotional paralysis that comes with it: all the more painful because it is set against a ravishing backdrop – a large, almost paradisiacal garden:
It was a lovely place: a huge, hidden, walled South London garden, with old fruit trees at the end, a wildly waving disorderly buddleia, curving beds full of old roses, and a lawn of overgrown rye-grass.
A man, an academic trying to write a paper on Hardy’s poems, “on their curiously archaic vocabulary” rents some attic rooms from a woman he has no connection with; her husband is mostly away. The initial set-up leads one to expect a foregone conclusion, but what follows is profoundly unexpected. The man has recently been left by his lover: he is bereft. Sitting in the garden each day his mind begins to recompose itself: and soon he has a companion – a silent boy of about ten with brilliant blue eyes and an extraordinarily trusting smile, swinging from the apple tree, or lying in the grass beside him.
When he asks the woman who the boy might be, and describes him, right down to his Chelsea football shirt, he taps into a wild grief. The woman’s only child, he discovers, had been killed two years before, knocked down by a car on a hot July afternoon (Byatt’s own son died this way: there is a personal heaviness to the writing). The woman cannot see the boy: she longs to. Neither the man nor the woman believes in ghosts: they agree that they appear to have crossed over into each other’s emotional currents: whether they can find mutual comfort through this is debatable.
The story seems to me to be very Jamesian (both Henry and M.R.) especially as it is a retelling with omissions – the man recounts it to a young American woman he meets later at a party. It is less contrived and curlicued than much of Byatt’s writing: there is a sense of urgent reflection about it. In our family, too, there is a lost child, and although she died in her early 20s, it is – sentimentally or perhaps so as not to dwell on the suffering which took her from us – that as a child I choose most often to remember her, an eternal child in an everlasting summer garden.
From Sugar and Other Stories, 1987, and also collected in The Penguin Book of Modern Women’s Short Stories, ed. Susan Hill, 1990) Chosen by Catherine Taylor. Read Catherine’s Personal Anthology here
Lorrie Moore’s ‘Paper Losses’ definitely isn’t an upbeat beach read, but it neatly illustrates the idea that wherever you go, there you are. Kit and Rafe met in the peace movement, but twenty years on they’re about to divorce and have “become, also, a little pro-nuke”. Moore’s depiction of their disintegrating marriage and an ill-advised final family holiday is full of clever observations and dark humour. There are Kit’s thoughts on being with Rafe: “It was like being snowbound with someone’s demented uncle: should marriage be like that?” Then there’s her take on life: “A woman had to choose her own particular unhappiness carefully. That was the only happiness in life: choosing the best unhappiness.” The holiday itself sounds fairly appalling even if it weren’t taking place during the death throes of a marriage. Kit’s suitcase is lost; the “colonial” resort is surrounded by barbed wire, through which the local boys peer; their children are painfully aloof; and the finale of the holiday – watching turtles hatch – doesn’t go to plan. At all. However, as Kit moves on, her life seems pretty optimistic and, as she says, “Hope is never false. Or it is always false. Whatever. It’s just hope… nothing wrong with that.”
I first came across this story on the New Yorker podcast and revisit it now and then as a touchstone of how to write funny/sad stories with a central character who is trying to figure out what it is to be a human. Enjoy!
First published in The New Yorker, and collected in Collected Stories, Faber. Chosen by Zoe Venditozzi