‘From Far Around They Saw Us Burn’ by Alice Jolly

My last five choices are all stories I’ve read for the first time in the past year. Often new stories fade, but not these. Alice’s story was selected for the prestigious O Henry Award in 2021, an annual collection of the year’s twenty best stories published in the US and Canadian magazines. It is an unforgettably powerful account of a real event – the Cavan Orphanage fire of 1943 in which 35 children and one adult died. There’s a particular responsibility in imaginative reconstructions of historical events and Alice weaves a compelling narrative out of her research, much as she did in her historical novel, Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile, which Unbound published in 2019. It reconstructed the inner life of a servant in mid-19th century rural Gloucestershire in the form of an exquisitely written monologue. ‘From Far Around They Saw Us Burn’ uses a similar device – but to reveal much more would risk spoiling the story’s devastating cumulative impact. Suffice to say, the description of the progress of the fire scorches off the page: I think it’s destined to become a classic. It also prompted me to ask Alice if she had enough stories to make a collection – she did and that book – called From Far Around They Saw Us Burn – is currently funding on Unbound and scheduled for publication in Summer 2023.

First published in The Best Short Stories 2021: The O. Henry Prize Winners, edited by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie & Jenny Minton Quigley, Anchor Books, 2021 and available to read here