Books

Emma Hughes picks six of the best re­cently pub­lished short-story col­lec­tions

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

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.

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