Julia Wigan selects six recently published collections that show the art of the short story is still as experimental and hard-hitting as ever
The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories
Penelope Lively (Fig Tree, £14.99)
MANY of these stories feel as if they’re set in a Miss Marpleish England, but 84-year-old Penelope Lively knows her compatriots well and goes in deep, always sharp and often funny.
two spiky old ladies who have shared a husband grit their teeth through a provocative lunch together as a waitress coos over the sweet old dears. the clever twist at the end of a story about a glamorous academic jolts us into questioning our own behaviour, as do many of these tales.
However, it’s the lead story that brings the most pleasure. Far from the shores of Blighty, in the ancient shadow of Vesuvius, a long-suffering swamp hen is the narrator as shamelessly debauched Pompeiians near their frazzled end: it’s Dame Penelope at her most wacky and imaginative.
How Much the Heart Can Hold: Seven Stories on Love (Sceptre, £12.99)
Don’t be put off by the title; these are not syrupy love tales, but stories by seven award-winning writers who were each commissioned to explore a different type of love—unrequited, familial, erotic—with powerful results.
My favourites are tipperaryborn Donal Ryan’s astute and amusing tale of obsessional love fighting its way through the snobberies of small-town Ireland, and Canadian D. W. Wilson’s story of enduring love struggling through a world of rednecks, trucks and broken-bottle fights. All seven score an outright win in the battle to make the ethereal real.
All the Beloved Ghosts
Alison Macleod (Bloomsbury, £16.99)
this collection runs between Canada, where Alison Macleod was brought up, and England, where she’s lived for 30 years. It trails the subjects of death and near-death in a refreshingly matter-of-fact style, jumping from black humour to tragedy.
young British Jihadists give up intentions of martyrdom under the ‘Victorian gloom’ of Brighton’s sea Life Centre; the hushed-up death of a distant aunt is brought to life when a 1920s office girl drowns with her boss in a Nova scotia estuary; and memories of Diana, Princess of Wales are strung cleverly alongside the agony of another woman’s failing marriage.
throughout these stories we’re reminded, with skilful subtlety, of just how much the past is integral to the present.
The Refugees Viet Thanh Nguyen (Corsair, £12.99)
It’s always interesting, however uncomfortable, to see ourselves through others’ eyes and the perceptions of this Pulitzer Prize winner make for a compulsive read. the eight stories are narrated, from different perspectives, by the author, who was brought up in America by Vietnamese refugee parents.
spotlessly devoid of bias and brimming with detail, Viet thanh Nguyen introduces us to a host of characters, from a displaced Vietnamese shopkeeper and an American ex-serviceman to a Chinese cheat and a gay san Franciscan who takes in refugees. Many are shadowed by trauma and sadness, but their stories ripple with understated humour and are told without sentimentality.
Swimmer Among the Stars
Kanishk Tharoor (Picador, £12.99)
this is a first collection by the young Indian writer, who presented Radio 4’s Museum of Lost Objects. Kanishk tharoor’s mind is an overflowing library from which he pulls Persian folklore, Egyptian history, Anglosaxon poetry and 20th-century politics. He prods the world with his great stick of irony and vast imagination; diplomats and dignitaries, officials and big shots are all in the firing line.
An Indian elephant on its journey to a Moroccan princess; the last speaker of a tribal language being interviewed by anthropologists; a phalanx of soldiers fighting the Romans in Western Anatolia: wherever he goes and in whatever era, Mr tharoor is original, unselfconscious and relevant.
Bad Dreams and Other Stories
Tessa Hadley (Jonathan Cape, £16.99)
tessa HADLEY hops from one character to the next with the intuition of a good actress. she’s uncannily evocative of 1970s adolescence when a girl on the brink of her teens is thrown into a lions’ den of older boys. she glitters with wit and empathy when she gets under the skin of a young, Edwardian teacher who has secret assignations with her lover in the school French cupboard.
Whether telling a story about a little girl waking at night, a troubled woman on a Liverpool train or a marketing executive’s return to her modest roots in Leeds, the author excels at threading meaningful undercurrents through the ordinary.