Introduction

“A novel wants to befriend you, a short story almost never.” This one-liner, by the great Joy Williams, master of the form and seductress of the page, explains why I wasted so much of my reading life ignoring short stories, deterred by their haughty high-handedness; they didn’t need me, so I didn’t need them.

What a fool. I could blame my English teachers, or the school syllabus of the early 1990s, but if I hadn’t been so short-sighted I could have picked some up for myself. After all, that’s why I avoided an English degree, and nearly didn’t do English A-Level, figuring I didn’t need to study books to read books.

It took a story by Mary Costello, an Irish writer with a new novel out, handed out at an evening writing class, for me to come to my senses, and now I approach the form with the zeal of a reformed smoker. I press collections on friends, silently judging those I can’t sway with my choices before remembering I don’t really like recommending books; reading is too personal, each plot appealing in different ways at different times in someone’s life.

This will be my excuse if you don’t like any of the following stories, but if you do I am here for book chat over coffee or something stronger even, or especially, when I should be doing something else.

P.S. Being reminded how much I love Alice Munro this week made me feel bad for not including her, but it’s just too hard to pick one story. So I’ll cheat and point you to a bonus collection instead, Hateship, Friendship, Loveship, Courtship, Marriage, although everything she’s written is genius.

‘Ghosts and Empties’ by Lauren Groff

This was pressed on me by a different writing teacher, Derek Palacio, a fine novelist and generous teacher I was lucky enough to spend time with recently at the University of Michigan. How he anticipated my mood quite so precisely would be worrying if every parent hadn’t felt like Groff’s narrator at some point. Suffice to say, her unnamed mother opens by saying she has somehow become a woman who yells, and, because she doesn’t want to be a woman who yells, whose little children walk around with frozen, watchful faces, she laces on her running shoes instead and heads out after dinner for a walk. And if that doesn’t have you immediately clicking on the link, or heading to buy her collection, which is jammed with other joys, then you probably aren’t a parent, which is fair enough, except doesn’t everyone yell, parent or not? Through the narrator, we meet an entire neighbourhood, studied, at a distance, as the woman paces the streets. Groff’s language is visual, her images striking. It’s a story to read and re-read and then read again.

First published in The New Yorker, July, 2015. Collected in Florida, Cornerstone Digital, 2018. Read it online here

‘Luxury Hour’ by Sarah Hall

Another mother seeks escape in ‘Luxury Hour,’ this time at her local lido, paying a babysitter so she can grab a swim. “Luxury Hour, Daniel called it, as if she was indulging herself, but it was the only time she had without the baby.” On a sunny day, at my own lido, I can’t swim without remembering how Hall’s “light filaments flashed and extinguished in the rocking fluid”.  This story is simpler than many of Hall’s, which often veer towards the fantastical, but it cuts to the quick of life as a new mother trying to ignore her midriff in the changing room mirror as she searches for a snatch of the person she once was. A chance encounter with an old lover adds a flick of Hall’s trademark eroticism; we learn her name is Emma and that she cheated on her then boyfriend, now husband. We know she feels trapped.

Collected in Madame Zero, Faber & Faber, 2017

‘The Wadden Sea’ by Dorthe Nors, translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken

I should probably pick Nors’s first story for the New Yorker, ‘The Heron’, because then I could link to it. That’s the one with “young women with their stony faces and big baby carriages. They always come in flocks, great flocks of mothers, and they stir up bad feelings in one another, so none of them will even look at you when you walk past”, which you’ll remember every time you see group of buggied mums in a park. But I’m going for ‘The Wadden Sea’, which closes Nors’s collection, Karate Chop, for its sheer, devastating bleakness. A mother, escaping depression, alcoholism, fear of life, moves to Sønderho, miles from Copenhagen, with her young daughter, for the pure air and authenticity of the Wadden Sea. But it turns out that “fear of life” managed to get on the train from Copenhagen, sail on the ferry, knock on the door, and refuse to leave. “It crawled into bed with my mother and went to the store for new supplies each day and then shut itself in and piled itself up in the shed so that after a few months I had to call my grandmother.” After six, sparse pages, I’m still not sure what happens at the end, which would bother me more if Nors herself, who I interviewed for the erstwhile Independent on Sunday, hadn’t told the Paris Review that the story’s last line – “She said the Wadden Sea was an image in the mind’s eye, and that she was glad I wanted to go with her into it.” – was a puzzle.

Collected in Karate Chop, Pushkin Press, 2017

‘Family Physics’ by Catherine Lacey

Bridget, the main character in ‘Family Physics’, is someone who gives up on marriage after three months and once walked out of college and drove around the US for so long that her family presumed she had died, personifying the drifters that populate Lacey’s collection. In this story, Lacey’s dig at the absurdity of family obligations is both funny and sad. Of all her deft snapshots, this, about how Bridget’s sister had become someone she no longer recognised, stands out. 

And, sure, people always disappear into new people, and no one can stop the way new versions of people overtake the old versions of people, but something about the new Linda was so menacing that it made me suspicious of what she’d done with the old Linda.

You leave the story none the wiser about how the next decade of their family dynamics will pan out, which might sound frustrating but actually renewed my appreciation of the genre in a way that reminded me of Joy Williams’s dictum – that a short story doesn’t care what you think about it. Let’s face it, short stories usually leave you (well, me anyway) hungry and vaguely unsatisfied, making them far more realistic than novels, which try and con you into thinking you’re getting the complete picture. 

First published in The Sewannee Review, Spring 2018. Collected in Certain American States, Granta, 2018. Read it online here

‘#36 DEAREST’ by Joy Williams

With some stories you’re smitten from the first sentence, which is just as well when it’s from 99 Stories of God. Each story is less than a page long, some just a couple of paragraphs. I could write out the whole of ‘#36’ and probably still hit my word count. It’s about a house owned by Penny, a house Penny never liked but her tenants adored. They want to buy it but she takes against them. “Penny found them irritating in any number of ways – they were ostentatious, full of self-regard, and cheap. They also did not read.” That I read this after a short-lived stint as a landlord with tenants I also came to loathe might have everything to do with why I love the story so much if it wasn’t also perfectly written. Penny is both a normal person and, in her own way, God. Find the collection; there are 98 other gems as well as this one. 

Collected in 99 Stories of God, Tuskar Rock Press, 2017

‘Vuotjärvi’ by Sarah Hall

There’s a watery theme emerging but I make no apologies. Nor for choosing two by Sarah Hall. There is more swimming, more sensual evocation of time with a lover, and plenty more of Hall’s brilliant wordsmithery in this story about an unpronounceable Finnish lake. Air is glutinous, silence “benthic”, and no, I’m not ashamed to say I had to look that up. (“Of, relating to, or occurring at the bottom of a body of water.’) Even the mosquitoes get painted with care, “their legs floating long and dusty behind them”. A sense of doom builds from the opening two lines: “She stood on the pontoon and watched him swim out. His head above the lake surface grew smaller and more distant.” Another story that will haunt any lake swimmers among you. 

Collected in The Beautiful Indifference, Faber & Faber, 2011

‘The Haväng Dolmen’ by Chris Power

I wasn’t going to pick this story, which is from Power’s first book. I didn’t know which to choose, so I re-read them all again, and could have stopped anywhere, enthused about any of them. En masse, they throb, a collective sense of unease building throughout, amplified by the same character, Eva, cropping up in three linked tales. Throughout Power’s simple language deceives, obscuring complex themes that make his work well worth revisiting. ‘The Haväng Dolmen’ starts with an archaeologist’s talk at a conference in Sweden and accompanies him on a trip to a Swedish stone-age burial site. The experience is intense, reviving memories of a bitter childhood encounter with a mean French boy on holiday and the knowledge that we are all going to die. Sometimes, though, it helps to remember that everyone shares these thoughts, which is why I’m recommending this but hoping you’ll be inspired to read the entire collection. (Incidentally, I knew nothing about this book when I picked it up in a bookshop, intrigued but the scratched-out face of a woman on the front. I didn’t even know Chris’s gender. And my experience was probably all the stronger for going in blind, so I hope I haven’t given too much away.) 

First published on longreads.com. Collected in Mothers, Faber & Faber, 2018. Read it online here

‘Bad Latch’ by Curtis Sittenfeld

If life is complicated, people are even more complicated. Often I read to remind myself of this, not to mention to feel better about myself. Being reminded not to be too hasty to write people off never hurts either. In ‘Bad Latch’ a new mother is overwhelmed not only about being a new mother, but also because another mother seems to be winning, assuming you view parenting as a competitive sport, and if someone can price a $62 maternity tank-top on sight, then it’s probably safe to assume she’s not the laid-back type. To be fair, everything about Gretchen seems annoying, from the overpriced top to her performative earth mother stance. But guess what? Life doesn’t always pan out as planned and Gretchen turns out to have her own problems like everyone else. Sittenfeld writes characters you feel like you know while steering clear from stereotypes. She’s a gem of a writer and I can’t wait for her next book, which (as far as I can tell) turns the opening story from this collection, ‘The Nominee’, into a novel about Hillary Clinton. 

First published in The Washington Post, New Fiction Issue, 2015.Collected in You Think It, I’ll Say It, Doubleday, 2018. Read it online here

‘The Last Reunion’ by Jane Gardam

I didn’t mean to pick so many stories that close collections, but here is another. ‘The Last Reunion’ brings together four older women who met at college as much younger women. The finality comes from the reunion itself, a final act for a women’s college that is closing down, or rather, amalgamating with a male college and moving counties, but also, one suspects, from the meeting of four people who won’t meet again, not least because they don’t even seem to like each other very much. Gardam, a brilliant and prolific writer, is a master at wry putdowns and deft characterisation. Read it and your life will flash backwards and forwards, almost simultaneously. 

Collected in The People on Privilege Hill, Europa Editions, 2008. Read the first few pages here

‘The Isabel Fish’ by Julie Orringer

Where was Julie Orringer when I was “coming of age” like most of the characters in her stories? It’s not that I’d have been able to relate to all their predicaments – I still don’t know what the ‘Devvies and Sallies’ are that Tessa is trying not to take while babysitting her little niece in ‘Care’ – but it might have been enough knowing those characters were out there. Again, it was hard to narrow my choice – writing this I’m worrying I cheated this entire exercise, picking collections rather than stories – but perhaps it doesn’t matter when each story is so good. ‘The Isabel Fish’ is the title story in How to Breathe Underwater in all but name: a teenage girl needs to learn how to breathe underwater in preparation for a family holiday to St Maarten in the Dutch Virgin Islands so her parents sign her and her brother up for scuba lessons in the local Y pool. But if that sounds rosy, the set up is anything but. The girl is the “canker of her brother Sage’s life”. He hates her because of what happened “last November”, which we quickly learnt involved his girlfriend, Isabel, drowning after a car crash. His sister survived. There is revenge, guilt and, unexpectedly, hope, all woven together with dexterity and panache. I cried. 

Collected in How to Breathe Underwater, Viking, 2004. First published in The Yale Review, July 2003

‘City People’ by Lydia Davis

I first read ‘City People’ without any knowledge of the literary phenomenon that is Lydia Davis, which is an embarrassing admission. Unsurprisingly, I adored it. Another Davis story written expressly for me, or for the me that might struggle after leaving the city for the countryside. So many of her stories seem to have been written expressly for me, something I suspect is true for many others, damnit. They are sharp, dry and, usually, funny. And often very, very short. In ‘City People’, which at 130 words is shorter than this paragraph, a couple struggle with their move to the countryside, feeling uneasy at the strange noises and quarrelling more. “They cry, or she cries and he bows his head.” Everything is wrong, although not necessarily with the countryside. “We’re city people,’ he says, ‘and there aren’t any nice cities to live in.’”

Collected in Samuel Johnson is Indignant, McSweeney’s, 2001. Also, The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, Picador, 2010. Read online here

‘The Sewing Room’ by Mary Costello

If you’ve read this far and I still haven’t convinced you to dip into any of the stories, then this is the one. The one that catapulted me into my obsession with the form. I love Costello’s own story almost as much as I love this one, which closes her first collection. (She has since written two novels, the most recent, The River Capture, published this autumn.) ‘The Sewing Room’ is a simple tale about a moment of passion with life-long consequences. The writing is bare and unsentimental, the emotional impact brutal and devastating. Alice opens her story at the end of an afternoon sewing ahead of an evening to mark her retirement as an Irish primary school teacher. “There had been a child,” we learn early on, our readerly hackles right to be raised at that ominous ‘had’. Costello got the idea for the story from overhearing a snippet on the fringe of a gathering about how “so-and-so’s son is a lawyer now, in Boston”. Alice is Costello’s so-and-so, the baby the Boston lawyer. Costello allows Alice only a flash of judgment about what happened, leaving the reader to feel furious on her protagonist’s behalf. Buy The China Factory to read this story and you’ll be rewarded with the rest of the collection, which is equally luminous. 

Collected in The China Factory, The Stinging Fly Press, 2012