I love short stories; I think they’re a sorely underappreciated genre of fiction. So I’m going to recommend ten of my favourite current British short story writers. (This isn’t a ‘top ten’, by the way; I couldn’t – and wouldn’t want to – be that definitive. But I do heartily recommend the work of each of these writers.)
Nina Allan’s stories combine the human and the fantastic, often in ways that mean they reinforce each other. A collection of hers may also tell a larger story than its individual pieces. The Silver Wind explores issues of identity and loss through multiple realities which are only connected as far as the reader cares to allow. Stardust depicts characters from past, present and future affected by a film actress who may not even be real. I may not know where one of Allan’s tales will take me, but I always know the journey will be interesting.
Stuart Evers’s first collection, Ten Stories About Smoking, came in the most brilliantly designed packaging – a flip-top box made to look like a cigarette packet. But the stories themselves are what make the book really special, as Evers elegantly uses smoking to represent a variety of concepts, from the distance between a pair of siblings to the lives of friends lost. Ten Stories About Smoking then has a satisfying unity as a collection, even as its individual tales are very different from each other.
Sarah Hall is a great writer of place and landscape; you need look no further than a story like ‘Butcher’s Perfume’, her tale of two girls growing up in Cumbria, to see that. But she also captures character very well (the osmotic development of the girls’ friendship in that same story is a fine example), and uses metaphor superbly (as in ‘Mrs Fox’ where a woman undergoes a profound transformation that slides between literal and metaphorical readings). Her collection, The Beautiful Indifference, shows what a versatile writer of short fiction she is.
It’s only a few months since I read Kirsty Logan’s debut collection, The Rental Heart, but I don’t hesitate to include her on this list. In a set of stories about love in its varied forms, Logan draws on traditional fairytales as well as creating her own, with a rich use of language. Her style shifts from story to story, each tale in a different key, so to speak.
I’ve read only one of Adam Marek’s collections – The Stone Thrower – but I was very struck by its thematic unity, as Marek examines the lengths to which adults may go to protect the children in their care. He places his characters in situations both mundane and fantastical, and watches as they react in extraordinary ways.
Nobody writes about the quotidian quite like Jon McGregor. Even in the space of two or three pages, even if it’s just a pair of characters looking out of the window, he uncovers the living strangeness that comes with just being in the world. To read McGregor’s collection, This Isn’t the Sort of Thing that Happens to Someone Like You, is to be immersed in the world as you’ve never quite seen it, only to be persuaded that this may be how it really is.
Maybe this selection is cheating a little: Helen Oyeyemi is best known as a novelist, and Mr Fox is really a novel built from short stories. But what stories they are! Oyeyemi takes a 1930s American writer and his imaginary-turned-real muse through various iterations of the tale of Bluebeard. They are the mistress of a finishing school for young men and the prisoner held in its lake, or a psychiatrist and a young woman scarred by her mother’s murder. Mr Fox is an exhilarating ride through worlds of short fiction.
Sarah Salway has a knack for taking situations that look ordinary from the outside, and revealing their true significance, often in unexpected ways. Whether it’s a boy waiting in the car while his parents ‘have a little sleep’, a couple dancing at a school ceilidh for control of their relationship, or a girl writing about her role models in a way that illuminates her troubled home life, there are surprising and poignant turns. Salway’s collection is called Leading the Dance, and that’s just what she does with her readers.
Whenever I’ve read Robert Shearman, I have been impressed by his ability to create fantasy stories that work on literal and metaphorical levels at the same time. Often, Shearman’s characters will treat the most absurd occurrence (such as the disappearance of Luxembourg, or a man working as a tree) as completely mundane – which might also be seen as their refusal to face up to the reality of their situations. It’s the interplay of ordinary and extraordinary that makes Shearman’s tales work so well.
In Diving Belles, Lucy Wood brought the folktales of Cornwall into the present day, and created a world all of her own in the process. From a woman turning to stone as her personal life also seizes up, to a droll-teller rediscovering this gift for seeing and speaking the stories embedded in the landscape, a true sense of magic – equal parts dangerous and fascinating – suffuses Wood’s work. Her debut novel is out next year, and I can’t wait to see where she takes her career.
David Hebblethwaite is a book blogger and reviewer. He has written about books for venues including the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize; We Love This Book; Strange Horizons; and Shiny New Books. He blogs at Follow the Thread. You can also find David on Facebook and as @David_Heb on Twitter.