Books

Ju­lia Wigan se­lects six re­cently pub­lished col­lec­tions that show the art of the short story is still as ex­per­i­men­tal and hard-hit­ting as ever

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

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.

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