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
I’m not sure what a short story is. I’m not at all sure about the ‘story’ bit. I suppose I’m more sure about the ‘short’ bit, though this can vary: shorter than a ‘novel’, I guess, and shorter than a ’novella’ (and I’m not so sure about these either), sometimes as short as a sentence. I would have liked to have included Gertrude Stein if Identity: a Poem were a short story; I would have liked to have included Anakana Schofield if Martin John were a collection of short stories; I would have liked to have included Anne Boyer if A Handbook of Disappointed Fate were a collection of short stories, but I’ll stick to things that have called themselves short stories, or have been published that way. I’m hesitant to make a list of ‘greats’, there are just stories that have been important to me at one time or another. This list is in no way either a lesson or a warning.