Emma Hughes picks six of the best recently published short-story collections
The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth William Boyd (Viking, £14.99)
YOU DON’T have to be having an affair to appear in one of William Boyd’s stories, but it helps. His cast of upper-crust scammers, novelists manqué and filmindustry orbiters have more than usually roving eyes, plus a tendency to get into scrapes.
The tales aren’t all of a piece: The Road Not Taken, in which a relationship is told backwards, is tantalisingly brief; conversely, the title story feels baggy (Bethany Mellmoth, the subject of a Spectator Christmas short story back in 2009, probably didn’t need a third of a book dedicated to her).
The Vanishing Game, though, which closes the collection, is vintage Boyd—pacy, sexy and clever. It feels like an excerpt from a novel. Here’s hoping.
Fresh Complaint Jeffrey Eugenides (4th Estate, £12.95)
SPANNING AMERICAN novelist Jeffrey Eugenides’s career, Fresh Complaint is a collection of short stories dating from between 1989 and 2013. The book has been a long time coming—it’s the first thing he’s published since 2011’s The Marriage Plot. Was it worth the wait? In parts, I’d say.
Some of the most thoughtful stories—such as Timeshare, in which a son bears witness to his Trump-lite property developer father’s hubris—were written when he was very young, while the more recent ones (Baster, told by a woman’s vengeful exboyfriend, and Fresh Complaint, about a lecturer being seduced by a student) can read like Roald Dahl on a bad day.
The very best is Complainers, in which an elderly woman is sprung from her grim retirement community by a friend.
The Collected Short Stories Jean Rhys (Penguin Classics, £9.99)
READING JEAN RHYS can feel like watching someone’s hand being held over a flame. An undercurrent of casual cruelty runs through all her writing, but although there’s never any soft-soaping, there’s no lack of humanity—or wit.
This 400-page volume brings together every story from her three collections: The Left Bank (1927), Tigers Are Better-looking (1968) and Sleep It Off, Lady (1976), plus a few uncollected ones.
All the Jean Rhys staples are here: bedsits, longing, the loss of innocence, missed connections. Some of the most affecting stories, which were written not long before she died, deal unsparingly with endings. Old age, like a lot of things in Jean Rhys’s world, is not for sissies.
Men Without Women Haruki Murakami (Harvill Secker, £16.99)
BEYOND ALL this, the wish to be alone,’ Philip Larkin wrote in Wants. The poet, with his determination to swim against the social tide and singleminded passion for jazz, would have been at home among the cast of Haruki Murakami’s Men Without Women.
Taking its title from the 1927 Hemingway collection of the same name, it focuses on lonely men who, for various reasons, are drifting. Their wives cheat on them inexplicably, they move to places where they know nobody and they wonder where it all went wrong.
In spite of the title, however, women do feature: one of the pieces of writing that really gets under your skin is about housekeeper Scheherazade, who entertains her employer (and sometime lover) with the tale of how she broke into her teenage crush’s bedroom. These are quiet stories— small, but lethally sharp.
Fen Daisy Johnson (Vintage, £8.99)
THE FENS have long been industrialised, but you get the feeling that Nature is biding its time, waiting for the moment to strike back.
Daisy Johnson’s debut collection (she was just 25 when she published it) plays on this sense of unease, bringing together a dozen stories set in East Anglia that are as slippery as the landscape itself. A teenage girl turns into an eel; her sister carries her out to the canal in a towel and watches her slither away. A dead boy may or may not have been reincarnated as a fox. Women entice men into their houses, then eat them.
If this sounds like whimsy, it isn’t—miss Johnson’s spare prose makes even the most far-fetched set-up seem creepily plausible.
Anything Is Possible Elizabeth Strout (Viking, £12.99)
YOU PROBABLY know someone who has already raved to you about this book: believe them.
To describe Anything Is Possible as a collection about the American Midwest would be a bit like saying the Sistine Chapel has a nice ceiling. The stories inside are all linked to the return of Lucy Barton,a novelist living in New York (and the heroine of the author’s acclaimed 2016 novel My Name Is Lucy Barton) to her dusty, down-at-heel hometown of Amgash, Illinois. Everyone there is surviving something: grief, infidelity, the destruction of their family farm, a grotesque childhood.
In Elizabeth Strout’s hands, these small-town tales become luminous parables with a redemptive message—that even shattered things can become mosaics.