A love letter to the short story

30 June 2018

9:00 AM

30 June 2018

9:00 AM

On a recent Guardian podcast, Chris Power — who has written a short story column in the Guardian for a decade — recognises the tendency of reviews of the form to begin with ‘an obligatory paragraph on “The Short Story” in capital letters, rather than talking about the work’. Power’s debut collection is itself a love letter to the form, a survey of it and the culmination of a life’s studious interest. So talking about the work itself doubles as a precis of ‘The Short Story’ and its moment.

Happening around the world — often engaged with travelling itself — the ten stories in Mothers take the form’s austerity and turn it into something from which restless characters seek to escape. Eva, a troubled Swedish woman who appears in three stories, exerts a pressure on all the others. They are often skillfully claustrophobic and tense. In ‘The Crossing’, a darkly comic, crafty tale, a woman has an unsatisfactory weekend of sex and hiking with a potential new partner. After she teases her date for not taking a daring route over a river, he feels the need to prove himself and falls to his death.

Someone spends a story worrying that his partner is going to leave him, and she does. A rootless young man decides to go to Mexico and stop a wedding. He is roundly humiliated as he discovers he has been the plaything of both bride and groom: ‘Realisation unfurled in Liam, like a flag catching the wind.’

While being oblique, most of the stories in Mothers follow this staple of short story convention. They are built around life-altering but simple realisations: a change in atmosphere or moment of acceptance; the locating of a point at which a person’s options diverged and potential lives went unlived. The quietness of Power’s approach, or rather the studiousness of it, can be exemplary. ‘The Colossus of Rhodes’, exploring the unreliability of memory and how storytelling can be a means of anaesthetising trauma, is strong enough to be taught as a masterclass in the form.

But at times Power’s containedness feels slight; too studious. Lesser stories are so gentle in their sanctioned purity as to feel impenetrable, then yield less than their surfaces suggest. As a reader, it’s hard for me to know whether this is Power’s fault or mine for having not read enough Alice Munro or Mavis Gallant. Either way, Mothers made me want to ransack Power’s columns, and the canon itself, to appreciate fully the collection’s secrets.

Lucy Wood similarly has a steady preoccupation with the form. The Sing of the Shore, in which she constructs a vivid, uneasy fictional geography of modern Cornwall, is her second collection, and she’s won a slew of revered awards and prizes. In ‘Home Scar’, three kids, during a summer’s boredom, self-consciously inhabit an empty house like adults. ‘We should have a conversation,’ one suggests, sitting at a set place of uncooked food. ‘Soon we have to go and sit in the armchairs.’

There’s a pervasive air of the gothic mundane. The father of a baby imagines voices next door. The ghost of a bothersome neighbour allegedly invites his rival to dig a ditch on the disputed land between their houses. A retired woman who lives at the very edge of the sea is overwhelmed by anxiety about litter on the beach. When she isn’t out secretly clearing it, she can’t get to sleep for worrying: ‘Where would it all go, after it had been collected? It wouldn’t really be gone, would it? It would just be somewhere else. It would be somewhere else, instead of here.’

There’s something which is very British and colloquial — the young narrator of ‘Home Scar’ thinks of his in-and-out-of-work father: ‘Then it would be like that time the hotel management changed and they could stick their longer shifts with no extra pay up their arses’ — but nonetheless otherworldly about Wood’s stories. What Daisy Johnson’s 2016 collection Fen did for East Anglia’s landscape, Lucy Wood has done for the south-west.

Over the Atlantic and of a different mould, You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld is peopled by celebrities, TV lawyers and social media stars. One feels this glitz on the level of subject should threaten the literary subtlety with which these characters are depicted. But that’s part of the fun of this collection.

Sittenfeld has successfully modelled a previous character on Laura Bush. This collection’s opener seems to be narrated by Hillary Clinton as a presidential nominee, who contemplates the ingrained sexism of a female interviewer. A nifty pathos rather than presumptuousness is evoked when she ends the narrative imagining her exit interview after two terms in office.

Sittenfeld’s speakers police their thoughts in endlessly interesting ways. In ‘Gender Studies’, a professor has an abortive hook-up with a taxi driver who admires Trump. ‘It’s not that she’s unaware that she’s an elitist asshole,’ she thinks. ‘She’s aware! She’s just powerless not to be one.’ During their encounter, her snobbery affects her internal monologue about her lover: ‘He uses his hands in a less habitually proficient but perhaps more natively adept way’ than her cultured ex. There’s a recurrent exploration of the lies we tell people just to spare them the humiliation of offending us. A woman is addressed as if she is pregnant, and doesn’t have the heart to correct this because she dreads ‘the prospect of what they’d both have to do when Julie had to reveal she wasn’t’.

Two characters in different stories feel awkward, obliged and responsible when their married friends try to begin affairs with them. The leisurely pace, buzzy dialogue (which can be anything from razor-sharp to woolly) and roominess of these stories make them seem less disciplined and refined than other examples of this noble, sometimes forbidding art. But when you’re used to, and enjoy, the tight-lipped control this form usually entails, a collection that withholds little can be very satisfying.

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