Short story time

March 12, 2012 § 1 Comment

It’s always nice to come across a short story where the main character is an expert in something other than class anxieties, relationships and menial jobs, whether or not said jobs are done while waiting for something bigger and better (ie artistic) to come along. The first story in The Best British Short Stories 2011 fits this description, hinging on a man whose love for gardening is matched only by his love of beautiful plant books (first editions etc). The narrator of “Flora” by David Rose falls, without admitting it to himself, for a young woman who appears to share his interests. He allows her to come to his house to sketch from his books and his garden, all the while unaware of the small but shocking nasty trick she is preparing for him.

Most of the stories in this collection are solid, well written, well conceived. There are a couple that work well until almost the end and then, in a desire not to round everything off neatly and be predictable, they start off down another path, opening up too many questions. They feel more like the beginnings of novels than true short stories. Another couple were overly descriptive, too longwinded, as if not really comprehending that everything needs to be scaled down for a short story, that a beautifully set scene is no substitute for emotion or event.

The terrain covered here is more varied and adventurous than the novels that currently make bestsellers lists and prize shortlists. Readers and writers alike perhaps find it easier to experiment with bold ideas and forms in a shorter piece. I was surprised to see two ghost stories, having assumed – as a non-lover of ghost stories – that the genre could not have much left to offer, and very pleased by the inclusion of a large number of stories engaging with what Sarah Selecky and Matthew J Trafford have called “the grounded fantastic,” a most satisfying blend of realism and “the impossible, outlandish or outrageous, […writing that is] outside the confines of mundane daily reality.” Kirsty Logan’s “The Rental Heart” was the best of these, in which, to avoid heartbreak, people can rent hearts for the duration of a relationship. The story is only five pages, but Logan works every word so that the overall strength of the piece is astonishing.

Stories about writers are often off-putting, as if the author just couldn’t think of another profession for the character that would leave him or her enough narrative freedom, either physically to do what they needed to do with their time, or emotionally, as if writers and other artists truly feel the world much more deeply than everyone else. Philip Langeskov’s “Notes on a Love Story” is not one of those stories. This is a funny, clever, wry and poignant examination of the trajectory of a successful writing career, undercut by the author’s sudden break-up with the woman who’d been with him since before he published his first short story. “Notes on a Love Story” manages to be intelligent, experimental, warm and uncomfortably true all at the same time. No small achievement.

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