I don’t have a gift for brevity, so I admire it. These are stories that do a lot with a little, that inspire a nip here and a tuck there. I’ve chosen stories that left a mark after I read them – like a pinch or scratch that is felt for days. Some console like a hug, some aggravate like a stone in the shoe. There are many more I could have included, but there is something satisfying about twelve.

‘The Cat who Walked by Himself’ by Rudyard Kipling

This is one of Kipling’s Just So Stories that he wrote for his daughter, Josephine. I sent a copy to a friend when his own Josephine was born and this was the one that came to mind when he said she is rereading it. Kipling’s archetypal Cat is “the wildest of all the wild animals” and refuses to be domesticated like the dog, the cow and the horse. The story treads the boundary between the wild and the homely that could be read as (but not only as) imperialist anxiety. The Cat insists “I am the Cat who walks by himself, and all places are alike to me. I will not come” and yet he arrives at the warm Cave of his Enemy to ask for milk. The story is an elusive allegory that teases us to follow as the Cat makes his escape “on moonlit nights he roams the woods or the roofs, walking by his wild lone.”

First published in the Ladies’ Home Journal, July 1902. Collected in Just So Stories, 1902. Available online here

‘The Doll’s House’ by Katherine Mansfield

Katherine Mansfield is the superlative modern writer of childhood. Her child characters are not saccharine or tragic, overtly sentimental or unscrupulous. Instead, they are curious, in both senses of the word. This story dramatises relationships between children that are cruelly defined by social class. The well-off Burnells aren’t allowed to speak to the Kelveys, the fatherless daughters of a washerwoman. But the arrival of a doll’s house that is “too marvellous” allows a moment of connection. The house is the talk of the school playground; “four windows, real windows, were divided into panes by a broad streak of green. There was actually a tiny porch, too, painted yellow”. But the object that Kezia (the heroine of many Mansfield stories) adores, “the little lamp”, prompts her to break the rules to show the house to the Kelveys. What I love about the story is the use of the little or the tiny – the replica lamp that looks like it could be lit – to convey not cuteness but the complexity of aesthetic pleasure. The lamp becomes an emblem of the sudden, devastating insight that anyone can have no matter their social standing.

First published in The Nation or Athenaeum, 1922, collected in The Doves Nest and Other Stories and available online here

‘Trio’ by Jean Rhys

This is a piece of what we would now call ‘flash fiction’ that sits alongside Rhys’s more substantial stories, including the masterful ‘Let Them Call it Jazz’ with which it shares some characteristics. The narrator is an outsider looking in (the definitive figure in Rhys’s work), in this case through the window of a café in which a group of three people – a man, a woman and a teenage girl – are enjoying themselves. Rhys was proud of her ability to prune her stories to the bare essentials and here she provides more questions than answers. We don’t know if the narrator is black or white, whether she (I’m assuming) has anything in common with the people in the café or (more likely) desires to be like them. Does “I remember the Antilles” express a longing to return to the Caribbean or a sadness that she knows she never will? The uncertainly extends to the young girl in the story, who may or may not be the daughter of the older man being so affectionate towards her.

First published in Left Bank, Jonathan Cape/Harper & Brothers, 1927

‘Friends’ by Grace Paley

This story is a masterclass in dialogue and an experiment in creating a collective narrator. Paley based the structure on her own female friends whose lives were so intertwined. In the story they exist as a many-voiced entity in which each knows the thoughts of the others, or believes they do. Faith, the first person ‘narrator’, Susan and Ann, are on a five-hour train journey home from visiting their friend Selena, who is dying. The milestones of life are filtered through their responses to Serena’s illness at the end of a complicated life; discovering she was an adoptee, the death of her daughter, the love of a married man. “A few hot human truthful words” are desired by Ann to wipe away the messiness they are left with, but the story doesn’t allow for clean conclusions.

First published in The New Yorker in 1979 and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Later the Same Day, 1985 and the Collected Stories, Virago Modern Classics, 2018

‘Dear Life’ by Alice Munro

The final and titular story of Munro’s 2012 collection involves a woman and her mother in Southern Ontario, Munro’s home territory. Munro is known for dealing with the layers that make up the ordinary and this story works with threads of memory to show how perception changes over time. It opens “I lived when I was young at the end of a long road. Or a road that seemed long to me.” Munro said that the final four stories in the collection are “autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact”. Certainly, this story establishes the reflective voice of the author/narrator in tension with her mother who imparts her impressions of the people around them. As readers we have to make our own judgements.

First published in The New Yorker, September 2011, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Dear Life, Chatto and Windus, 2012

‘Maggie’s Day Out’ by Frances Molloy

The comfortable, almost bedtime story-like narration of this story makes its violence more devastating. Family life is a site of drama from the start with “a false report that Maggie had died in childbirth” ironically placed on a par with the mother-of-three going out for the day; “the idea that their mother could voluntarily absent herself from their company, for a whole day, had never ever occurred to them.” The tension and the comedy of Frances Molloy’s style is held in an almost unbearable balance as the children are sent out alone by their father, who rewards himself for feeding them with a quiet afternoon. “Wrapped up in their discovery” they go “searching for treasure” amongst the cornfields while we itch to protect them from every danger, never imagining the awfulness that will mean Maggie “didn’t go away again for another fourteen years.”

From Women are the Scourge of the Earth, The White Row Press, 1998

‘Mermaid’ by David Constantine

David Constantine is a magician when it comes to writing place and many of his stories explore characters’ fears via landscapes that both bewitch and offer solace. In ‘The Mermaid’ a man retreats “gently, gently” from the “sharp little fingers” and even sharper tongue of his wife to carve a mermaid figure from fragrant cherry wood in his shed overlooking the sea. The “trance” of the carving, the melancholy ending of the holiday season in the seaside town, the objects he combs for on the beach and the shouting mouths of his wife’s friends – “as red as jam” – animate his cruel situation. As expected of Constantine’s work there is no resolution, no working through, only the comfort of moving slowly on.

From In Another Country: Selected Stories, Comma Press, 2015

‘The Weekend’ by Makhosazana Xaba

South African poet and writer Makhosazana Xaba often writes with honesty, care and humour about women’s lives and relationships. In this story from her first collection, the trope of a romantic weekend away is overturned as two women, one fifteen years older than the other, arrive at a guest house where they will stay until the younger has undergone a medically induced abortion. The story evokes a kind of heightened perception as the sunflowers on the bed cover and the two toilets in the newly renovated bathroom seem to highlight aspects of the intimacy between the two women. This is a story of loss and grief that challenges the secrecy and shame still attached to abortion. It’s also a story about female strength and solidarity; by the time they leave Zaba, the younger woman, has a face “like the dawn of another day”.

From Running and Other Stories, Modjaji Books, 2013

‘Who Will Greet You at Home’ by Lesley Nneka Arimah

This story grabs the reader from the get-go and won’t release its grip. A want-to-be mother loses her baby and immediately must craft another from found materials (wool, hair, raffia) until one is blessed and survives; “The yarn baby lasted a good month, emitting dry, cotton-soft gurgles and pooping little balls of lint, before Ogechi snagged its thigh on a nail and it unraveled.” Like all the pieces in this collection the story is both adventurous and almost too close to home in its explorations of the pains and pressures of infertility, child loss and motherhood. Babies that are “pillowy” or “porcelain” cannot become flesh because ‘Soft children with hard lives go mad or die young’. Dreams and emotions are siphoned off and traded in a strangely familiar world and relationships between women take a sinister turn.

First published in The New Yorker, October 2015 and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky, Penguin Random House, 2017

‘The Bird’ by Uschi Gatward

This is the story with the clearest arc in Uschi Gatward’s stunningly unusual collection. A newlywed couple return from honeymoon and open their wedding gifts in their new house. The woman’s nerves are already frayed when her husband wakes her to complain about a noise; “she feels like digging her nails into his arm, giving him a Chinese burn”. The persistent TAP TAP TAP turns out to be a bird trapped in the fireplace and they can’t escape from its suffering – “from its dark prison it can see the chinks of electric light”. An escalating anxiety slips into a surreal sense of wonder as the couple rescue their shiny new life from the smothering presence of the dying bird.

First published in English Magic, Galley Beggar Press, 2021

‘Consolata’ by Nuala O’Connor (aka Nuala Ní Chonchúir)

A young woman takes her boyfriend back to her rural childhood home where her mother is now living alone after her father’s death. The animalistic details – her mother “snuffling after me like a resolute badger”, her partner “like a pet while he sleeps” – bring a physicality to the story that extends to the sense of place. In the graveyard she reflects that “the ecology of this place is sewn into me”. As she passes through ‘the black crosses to the yew tree’ and slips under its “umbrella” we learn that the reason for this connection is not fond memory but bitter betrayal. What I admire most about this story is its calm humour as the narrator returns from the “pantomiming” pretence of her past to the present in which “we drink, talk and ponder it all until the April sun drops behind the orchard and is gone.”

First published in Joyride to Jupiter, New Island Books, 2017. Available online in Granta here

‘The Lonesome Bodybuilder’ by Yukiko Motoya, translated by Asa Yoneda

In Yukiko Motoya’s stories people, bodies and relationships morph into bizarre new shapes. In this story a woman’s new hobby brings the collection’s theme of marriage into sharply defined focus. Her bodybuilding alters her relationship with herself, her colleagues and her customers at work, but her husband doesn’t notice a thing until she gets a haircut. Her newfound purpose and working with her fitness coach reduces her loneliness – “Sculpting beautiful bundles of muscle took a lot more commitment than I’d thought’ – but the T-bar rows, rack pulls and reverse crunches that she does religiously are really a way of expressing “all my different faces”. She defies the complacency of long-term partnership, declaring “There’s so much inside me he doesn’t’ know.” When her husband finally sees her the coach comments “I get the sense you’ve had some kind of breakthrough”. It’s no spoiler to say that the story has an (apparently) happy ending.

From The Lonesome Bodybuilder, Soft Skull Press, 2018