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10 Contemporary Short Story Collections to Read

10th Dec 2015

10 Contemporary Short Story Collections to Read
Image: Hans Dinkelberg
Aside from those written by literary heavyweights like Alice Munro or Margaret Atwood, short story collections can get overlooked when it comes to fiction review columns and recommendations. Here are ten phenomenal short story collections from the last ten years, most of them debut collections, which you might have missed… Jane Healey writes.

 

  1. Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen: A Manifesto in 41 Tales by Marilyn Chin

Bawdy, raucous, strange, arch, profane, wickedly funny, and occasionally impenetrable – this story collection, or ‘Manifesto in 41 Tales’, from poet Marilyn Chin stands in its own category. Taking place in and around the Double Happiness restaurant in California, these stories jump from the voice of the protagonists Mei Ling and Moonie, to the fierce Grandmother Wong, the workers in the restaurant, customers, a fat carp fish, even the restaurant itself. A cacophony of voices and points of view, of styles and genres, as Chin explores and deconstructs animal fables, Buddhist scripture, Chinese ghost stories, kung fu revenge tales, radical Zen texts and minority-Chinese folktales. The stories in this collection might by boiled down to the description in ‘Cicada’ of “the cycle of feeding and mating and suffering” except for the way that love, and its sacrifices, is also foreground. Moonie says about the sister she mocks and fights, “How splendid, how ridiculous, that despite everything, I am inextricably bound to and am deeply in love with this silly human being.”

  1. Cowboys and East Indians by Nina McConigley

In this collection, set in Wyoming and India, characters grapple with questions of identity and with expectations of others and of themselves. McConigley explores darker emotions of jealousy and bitterness; protagonists feel petty or hurt and lash out at the world, like exchange student Sindu in ‘Dot Or Feather’ who steals from her babysitting jobs, Delia in ‘Reserve Champion’ who takes a doll after losing a sewing competition, and Rae, a descendent of Indian emigrants who leaves threatening comments on her coworker’s blog while working in India and feeling jealous of them “for getting India more than I did. Because they weren’t afraid.” The first story opens, “We were the wrong kind of Indians living in Wyoming” and the meanings of this statement are explored in depth throughout the collection with dark humour and richly textured settings. McConigley has a unique perspective on America and a unique way with metaphor – in ‘Pomp and Circumstances’ wind turbines are described as crosses and the protagonist thinks of her secret IUD as “her own broken cartwheeling cross inside her uterus”, watching a couple two-step for a single character is like “watching the hands of a clock go round and round”, and an adoptee trying to connect to her Indian roots is dressed in a Sari, turning “as they dressed me like a wound.”

  1. The Need for Better Regulation of Outer Space by Pippa Goldschmidt

This debut collection is themed around science and scientists – some historical and some fictional – and explores the moral dilemmas involved in their work, the unknowable, and what it means to be human. The suffragettes interrupt the work of female ‘computers’ at an Edinburgh observatory, a benevolent lift is asked to calculate pi, Oppenheimer is alienated while studying in Cambridge, a telescope is turned back on the astronomers who use it in a troubled country, a thwarted woman sabotages her ex-lover’s experiment using her own cells so that “the lab-man would be looking down the microscope at her cells, growing and dividing. His eye staring right at her without knowing what she ever was”, Brecht is spied on while working on his play ‘Galileo’ in LA, a scientist is trapped in Antarctica with his love rival, Einstein meets a face from his past in the lift of his building as he grapples with gravity, and Alan Turing finds himself “trapped in his own test, imitating a woman” in the moving and tragic story ‘The Snow White paradox.’ Goldschmidt uses a direct, measured, and sometimes dryly witty, tone to showcase startling metaphors and imagery of stars, bodies, lab equipment, theoretical physics, numbers and cells; revealing how rich the world of science can be for fiction, and how unique this collection is.

  1. Wish I Was Here by Jackie Kay

A quiet and understated collection that sneaks up on you with its depth of tenderness and heart. Exploring themes of loss, jealousy and rejection, Wish I Was Here also has a wicked sense of humour. Many of the stories take place in engaging conversational monologues, sometimes in Scots dialogue, and there is a pleasing directness to the narration, an unsentimental treatment of difficult moments. One character in ‘What ever’ says, “You can get through anything wey the help o’ a scone” and in ‘How to Get Away with Suicide’ Kay deftly, and humorously, shows how the depressed narrator’s desire for the perfect suicide will paradoxically bring him back to life: “Christ, Malkie, he says to himself, if you’re going to kill yourself, you’re going to have to get a bit more organized.” Many of the stories involve older lesbian protagonists, characters not often represented in traditional media, and several use striking magical realist details like the woman who gives birth to a fox in ‘My Daughter the Fox’ and another who has grown up sharing the same face as the monarch in ‘Not the Queen’. The collection closes with a stunner – ‘The Mirrored Twins’ – a tender story about two male lovers getting lost during a mountain hike that might just move you to tears.

  1. The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

In this blockbuster of a collection Adichie explores some of the darker side of what it is to be human, the horrors of violence and unrest in Nigeria, and the dislocation experienced by Nigerian immigrants in America. In ‘Tomorrow Is Too Far’ “the amoral kingdom” of childhood is remembered; in ‘The American Embassy’ and ‘A Private Experience’ the trauma of shocking violence interrupts the narrative itself; and in ‘The Thing Around Your Neck’, ‘The Arrangers of Marriage’, ‘On Monday of Last Week’, and ‘Imitation’ Adichie excavates the gendered and racialized experiences of four Nigerian women living in America. Adichie is a skilled writer; using the metafictional deftly in ‘Jumping Monkey Hill’ which ends gloriously thus: “she wondered whether this ending, in a story, would be considered plausible”; and a second person point of view in ‘Tomorrow Is Too Far’ and ‘The Thing Around Your Neck’. In this last melancholy story the protagonist explains her philosophy that “there was nothing to understand, it was just the way it was” and it is the consequences and tensions of this statement that Adichie mines to such great effect in this collection.

  1. The Beautiful Indifference by Sarah Hall

A short collection of seven perfectly formed gems. Sarah Hall’s protagonists, all women, are brooding and detached from the world even as their insides are raw and exposed on the page. Shocking events and images splash into the carefully formed narratives and jolt the reader – like the dog with the bloodied mouth in ‘She Murdered Mortal He’, a runaway animal in ‘The Beautiful Indifference’, the fox in ‘Bees’, or the wounded horse in ‘Butcher’s Perfume’ – bringing to the surface a bloody, unsettling undercurrent. This collection is concerned with the wild; with people as animals, their bloodied bodies and how they move during sexual encounters or in nature. The land is described in clear but startling ways and as a topography soaked in its human past – in ‘Butcher’s Perfume’ the narrator paints a “landscape of torn skirts and hacked throats, where roofs were oiled and fired, and haylofts were used to kipper children”, and in ‘The Nightlong River’ “the ground would only ever half thaw until spring, like a clod of beef brought from the pantry and moved from cold room to cold room.”

  1. Happiness, Like Water by Chinelo Okparanta

A stark and powerful debut collection exploring the traumas induced by societal expectations for a series of women living in Port Harcourt, Nigeria and America. The subjects of the stories are dark – a man who loves his car more than his wife, a woman who poisons pregnant women to steal their unborn children for herself, an attempt at skin lightening that goes horrifically wrong, prostitution, domestic abuse, lesbian characters pressured to marry men, and cancer. Few of the stories end happily or with any kind of redemption and some of the stories contain artful echoes of others – identical names or situations – as if to show a circular, inescapable force of narrative. In ‘Grace’ the titular character explains: “Happiness is like water[…]We’re always trying to grab onto it, but it’s always slipping between our fingers[…]And my fingers are thin[…]With lots of gaps in between.” The language Okparanta uses is spare and direct; each voice is insistent and unflinching. This collection shows how devastating a short story can be and how much of a life you can fit inside twenty pages.

  1. Diving Belles by Lucy Wood

An astonishing debut, this collection of twelve stories reimagines Cornish folktales, weaving an enchanting world that is both familiar and strange. A woman turns into a hare, another into a standing stone, a man becomes a magpie, a daughter sees the ‘little person’ that has been her mother’s lifelong invisible companion, a wrecker haunts a young couple’s flat while chanting the shipping forecast, two children play in a boneyard of giants, and a widow searches for her lost husband underwater. Damp and blustering landscapes seem to drip from the page; houses are lovingly described in a homely fashion; and there is much concern about tea, toast, the heating, and a good coat. Wood’s metaphors feel remarkably fresh even as they also seem oddly familiar: a shipwreck “like an unlit bonfire”; a woman undergoing a transformation has toes turning to stone, “the weight of them reminded her of the marbles she and her brother used to play with”; a storm “thumping far away like someone moving boxes around in a dusty attic”; and rain “which appeared as suddenly and soundlessly as a face pressed against a window” in a story about an absent giant. A standout story ‘Notes from the House Spirits’ is told from the point of view of a house that tenderly watches and looks after its inhabitants who seem to flicker past like ghosts, mourning them when they have left, and turning the haunted house trope on its head.

  1. The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales by Kirsty Logan

This collection of stories combines elements of Magical Realism, fairytale, steampunk and myth. Characters make paper men to soothe their loneliness, insert rental hearts to prevent heartbreak, encounter strange drowning girls, meet Baba Yaga and fall in love with her, run away with the circus, eat lightbulbs, lose children, become coin-operated automatons, sleep with their brothers, and fall in love with the empress in the palace. Fairytales are explored and queered, with the usual endings upended, but it is the human heart that is foreground – grief, loneliness, lust, regret and jealousy – and made fresh through the original narratives. The language and imagery of the stories is lush and surprising. A village girl is seduced by a lady who finds her “tangle-skirted and chicken-full”, in ‘The Rental Heart’ the protagonist says of her lover, “I did not love her enough to cough blood. I kept what was left of me close, tucked under the long soft coils of my intestines where Anna wouldn’t see”, and in ‘Origami’ a wife’s obsession with paper unravels: “By mid-morning, her waste-paper bin was full of crumpled body parts[…]On the journey home, her bus ticket became a tongue.”

  1. A Thousand Years of Good Prayers by Yiyun Li

Yiyun Li’s Frank O’Connor Prize-winning collection contains ten artfully effortless short stories, slices of life that show the dislocation of Chinese characters in modern China and America. In ‘The Princess of Nebraska’ the protagonist thinks of being in the “wrong place” and the “wrong time”; aging characters without jobs feel lost in ‘Death Is Not a Bad Joke If Told the Right Way’ and ‘A Thousand Years of Good Prayers’; and in ‘Extra’ Granny Lin is fired from her job for befriending a young boy against the codes of society, “all the people in the street seem to know where their legs are taking them. She wonders since when she stopped being one of them.” The wounds of China’s past live on, unable to be fully integrated, as in ‘Immortality’ where a boy “born with the dictator’s face” lives a tragic life under the watch of his community mourning the loss of their history. Self-sacrifice, for family members or for personal convictions, is another common theme – in the title story a father visiting his daughter remarks “It is what we sacrifice that makes life meaningful.” Li’s debut collection is most remarkable for the way in which her stories eschew the usual narrative paths of short fiction, how each story truly feels like a life captured on the page.

Further suggestions: Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri, Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories by Sandra Cisneros, Claire of the Light Sea by Edwidge Danticat, Aerogrammes: and Other Stories by Tania James, One More Year by Sana Krasikov, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by Z.Z. Packer, The Redemption of Galen Pike by Carys Davies, Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins, An Elegy for Easterly: Stories by Petina Gappah, Don’t Try This At Home by Angela Readman.

By Jane Healey


 

Jane Healey is a writer whose stories have been published in Tin House online and Paper Darts. She was shortlisted for the Costa Short Story Prize in 2014  and the Bristol Short Story Prize in 2013. She is currently writing a novel. She tweets at @Healey_Jane .