‘At Hiruharama’ by Penelope Fitzgerald

I have in the past written at length about Fitzgerald, and called her “the greatest novelist of the 20th Century” (which I still stand by). She published her first novel at sixty-one, and wrote The Blue Flower, her masterpiece, when she was eighty. Her only book of short stories, The Means of Escape, was published in 2000, the year she died. ‘At Hiruharama’ is a perfect example of her greatness within just a few pages – she transports you to a different time and place; in this case New Zealand at the time of the first English settlers. 
The story is framed as a flashback, and the shifts in perspective – from Tanner, one half of the couple who have started a life in the remote New Zealand countryside, to their nearest neighbour, who comes the nine miles distance’ for dinner the night Tanner’s wife is giving birth – are just brilliant. Fitzgerald never wastes a word, and the world is built up detail by detail, like Tanner driving into town to buy rock salt and a sack of millet, and a book taking a year to arrive from England by post. If you’re looking for somewhere to start with Fitzgerald, I could recommend about four of her books, but if you only want a short story, then go for this.

First published in the anthology Infidelity, Chatto & Windus, 1993. Collected in New Writing 4, Vintage, 2004 and The Means of Escape, Flamingo, 2000. Listen to AS Byatt read it here

‘The Axe’ by Penelope Fitzgerald

I read all of Penelope Fitzgerald’s fiction for the first time last year. Her novel The Gate of Angels, set in a Cambridge college in 1912, contains a spectacular pastiche of an M.R. James-style chilling tale. Rather than close the narrative however, I have instead opted for ‘The Axe’, one of the first things Fitzgerald wrote. It has several elements in common with the other stories I have selected here – if you have read it, they will be obvious – but the twist on this occasion is there is no twist; no one is coming to help the narrator or the reader.

In narrative at its purest or most eventful we do not understand but are the narrative.

This is an open ending. And so is this. They are, I think, the way to go.

First published in The Times Anthology of Ghost Stories, Jonathan Cape, 1975, and in The Means of Escape, Flamingo, 2000, now Fourth Estate, 2016