The fourth in this now popular annual anthology series, just out from 15-year-old independent publishing house Salt, rounds up 20 stories by different authors, offering an insight into how varied the short fiction landscape in Britain is right now.
The task of editor Nicholas Royle (author of the critically acclaimed First Novel, about a lecturer of creative writing who we meet midway through the curious destruction of an e-reader) cannot be undervalued: to make his selection, he trawls umpteen literary magazines, online fiction outlets, author collections and prize shortlists. And his choices consistently deliver in terms of quality, even if sometimes the reader can find themselves left loomed over by an enormous question mark or discombobulated enough to need to open the fridge for solace (85% dark chocolate or 12% white wine; whatever your particular weakness).
Another creative writing lecturer (at UEA) is Philip Langeskov, also in The Best British Short Stories 2011. Second time round, he impresses with the effective double-helixed ‘Barcelona’, which intertwines different stories and links together two couples at significant milestones in their lives (a 10-year wedding anniversary and the birth of a first baby). Also putting in another appearance is Claire Dean with ‘Glass, Bricks, Dust’, a beautifully written fairy tale with an uncanny leaning (something to which Royle is a self-confessed addict). She manages to paint a picture so vivid, you almost feel part of the composition. My favourite.
I enjoyed Elizabeth Baines’s self-conscious storytelling in ‘Tides’ – “a Gothic drama […] a jovial realist tale or a misery memoir, depending on my mood […] a narrative arc with a happy ending”. In ‘Hope Fades For The Hostages’, Ailsa Cox, meanwhile, offers up a Jarmuschesque interweaving of three separate vignettes all happening at three in the morning, but developing in four instalments. David Grubb’s model railway-themed ‘Roof Space’ feels as immersive as Dean’s doll’s house castles, and has a fast-paced forward motion, reminiscent of trains, but the ending is disturbing, especially following straight after Siân Melangell Dafydd’s upsetting bonsai tree metaphor in ‘Hospital Field’.
There are ghosts, there are murders, there is blackmail, there is stalking. There is a lot of weird stuff in these twenty tales. But there is also humour, warmth, hope, compassion. The longest story in the collection, ‘Ashton and Elaine’ by David Constantine (author of the award-winning novel Tea at The Midland) is very moving; one of the shortest, Jay Griffiths’ ‘The Spiral Stairwell’ is touching, although maybe erring a little too much towards the sentimental for my tastes, but nonetheless – about an ambulance driver bolstering himself against bad news in the Blitz – it does illustrate the breadth of styles and themes on offer. Once again, The Best British Short Stories series delivers a package worth opening – it holds quite a few treats.