How Stories Do Or Don’t Get Told

Lucy Jeynes reviews Nicholas Royle’s selection, The Best British Short Stories 2014 (Salt Publishing)

When an anthology limits itself to a particular vintage, you hope it’s a good year. The Best British Short Stories 2014 from Salt Publishing presupposes a fierce selection process. Nicholas Royle is the author of more than 100 short stories himself, the editor of sixteen anthologies and the head judge of the Manchester Fiction Prize, which inspires a sense of confidence in his choices. He has whittled down this year’s crop to 20 pieces, which should enable everyone to find a favourite. Furthermore, his introduction points us towards magazines and small publishers producing the collections from which these pieces are chosen. If you like short stories but don’t know where to find them, this book is a gateway to wider reading.

Jonathan Gibb’s The Faber Book of Adultery kicks off the collection with Mark, a rather vain writer:

Actually I’ve got this fantasy, this book I’m going to edit. The Faber Book of Adultery. The joke being, I suppose, that the subject is so all-pervasive as to make the selection entirely otiose. It could be pages taken at random from any book, published ever.

Mark is detached from his evening by continually considering how he might capture events for the page, until real life catches him off guard. Thankfully Royle does not share his self-revelatory assertion that adultery is the theme that underpins all writing, and is a connoisseur of the form who has sniffed out a far more wide-ranging selection for us.

One challenge when writing in this form is to decide which small story will work as a prism to project the bigger one. Tides or How Stories Do Or Don’t Get Told from Elizabeth Baines is a quiet, reflective consideration of which stories might be told, and where one might start and finish.

I could tell that story, the time I ended it between us. I could make it a feminist re-telling of a fairy-tale: the sleeping princess (me) kicking the prince away from the glass coffin, ie my house which I had to myself again at last. I could end it there and people would be glad of a satisfying ending and none would be any the wiser, leaving out the way the house then filled with shadows, the fact that I stopped eating, that I longed for the sound of his step on the path again, and when it came, like a stroke on skin, rushed to the door and the light flooded in…

Claire Dean’s Glass, Bricks, Dust is a magical story set in the rubble of a demolished mill and the fertile landscape of a boy’s imagination.

Every child is always making something. Cut them open and shake them out and they’re full of dust and dreams.

The mute boy discovered in the market in David Constantine’s Ashton and Elaine is full of dust and dreams too, although it is the countryside rather than the town that opens him up. Written in a warm engaging Northern voice (a difficult trick to pull off without alienating the reader), there are hard edges pushing under the surface of this story like a landscape under snow. The dust and dreams are much sadder in Joanne Walsh’s quietly melancholic Femme Maison. The home has become a silent house, pressing with an expectation of tasks, one leading to another and another until an empty day has been filled with small, futile actions.

But how did your keyboard get so dirty? The dust builds all over the house, always on a different surface. You chase it with a corner of the dress’s sleeve. The dirt is still there, grey and furry. It has merely transferred. You are now part of it.

A collection like this would not be complete without some sinister tales of the unexpected: Adam Wilmington’s It fits the bill. They try as they might to get rid of it but it keeps on coming back. This is a story that needs its reader to complete the sense of menace—only you know exactly what it might be.

They didn’t know what to do about it. Nothing seemed to fit. She had suggested they bury it; he said it should be burned.

Philip Langeskov’s Barcelona builds like a thunderstorm on the horizon, layering tension upon tension and skilfully capturing the way that small things in a relationship can carry a heavy weight of meaning until the atmospheric pressure demands that the storm will break.

My favourite piece in this collection is David Gubb’s Roof Space. This is a tight, hard little story of a boy, his father, and their train set. Trains move back and forth in an orderly fashion in the loft, phrases and words come around and around the track, while life below unspools.

I am up here in the roof space and when my father arrives there will be announcements and whistles and precision and everything will work and for hours at a time we will be in command.

Not like downstairs. Not like the house beneath. Not like the rooms and the demands and the crying. Not like the father then.

Where a novel might paint its protagonists as carefully as Rembrandt, a short story works with the deftness of a pen and ink sketch, capturing the essence of its characters in a few lines. Vicki Jarrett shows us her narrator, her life, her hopes, her disappointments through her comments on a trip with her friends to Ladies’ Day at Ascot. A short dash but we are still able to read the form.

Mick Scully in The Sea In Birmingham achieves the feat of a full cast of characters, all springing vividly to life within seventeen pages. Set in an old folks’ home, Cyril’s seafaring past is catching up with him. Stuart’s ideas for the residents are sinister, but it is his drawings that interest the police. Bill, a retired cop himself, would like to make an arrest.

‘The sea in Birmingham,’ he says. ‘It’s much deeper than it looks. Not many people know that.’ He taps the side of his nose; he is telling her a secret.

Do not skip over the Acknowledgements section at the end of the book, as most of these pieces are taken from other anthologies which are listed at the back. 2014 is a strong year for the short story, and this collection forms the ideal starting point for a wider range of reading.

Lucy Jeynes

This review first appeared in Issue 3 of Bare Fiction Magazine (July 2014).

The Best British Short Stories 2014The Best British Short Stories 2014 edited by Nicholas Royle

Published by Salt Publishing (2014)

ISBN: 978-1-907773-67-9

RRP: £9.99