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The Best British Short Stories 2012


Edited by Nicholas Royle


London: Salt, 2012

Paperback. 231 p. ISBN 978-1907773181. £9.99


Reviewed by Nicole Terrien

Université Rennes II – UEB



Any anthology reflects the personality of its editor as much as it does the genre or the period of the texts it is composed of. Nicholas Royle's impeccable sample of “the best British short stories 2012” reads as more than a personal choice, it offers us a magic mirror catching our fleeting sense of nostalgia, our evanescent fear of time passing, our ephemeral moments of revelation. Instead of discovering a collection of miscellanies, we embark on a journey into the essence of being, to the core of literature, as is clearly expressed in Alison Macleod's The Heart of Denis Noble.

The story of a Professor of Cardiovascular Physiology, who undergoes a heart transplant, intertwines the memory of his early life with the close-up on the moment when he realises what love is. His girlfriend's theory about literature offers an interesting definition we can apply to the present collection: “Every part of a great story “contains” every other part. That's what a great creation is. It has its own marvellous unity” [164]. But it is only when his own scientific approach meets this literary perception that the essence of life can be perceived: “The heart 'listens' to itself. Causation isn't just upward; it is unequivocally downwards too. It's a beautiful loop of feedback. The parts of the heart listen to each other as surely as musicians in an ensemble listen to each other” [171]. This is why this collection so completely pleases the reader; it is an ensemble.

Indeed, the reader constantly finds himself/herself at the heart of this well-structured book which aptly opens with I Arrive First by Emma Jane Unsworth. In this account of the last few days the narrator spends at her favourite library before it closes down, books are used as a substitute for conversation between herself and the fellow reader she is falling in love with. The titles of the books they take down from the shelves weave a pleasant enigma of flirtation which may well run out of time before it can develop into a consistent love story. Remarks in italics read like the leads a writer would jot down, or even sometimes cross out. They punctuate the narrative and increase the sense of impending doom, making the form of the short-story all the more adequate to this tension. The library stands as the place where the dream is born to be fulfilled elsewhere, outside the now banal coffee-shop of modern life where the first dialogue in words starts. The story, however, culminates on the final image of the narrator's “face cracking with expectancy” [11], hardly a definitive closure.

As a counterpoint to this opening, the series ends with AK Benedict's The Last Library, a story with a bleak beginning set in some kind of “brave new world”, a time when books are banned and systematically destroyed. During a visit to “The Museum of Last Things”, a young girl, Angela, discovers “The Last Library. Behind two walls of glass and a decompression chamber. Angela's breath seems stuck” [219]. Maggie, the tour guide, and the other adults fail to understand her interest. All the same, the library comes to life, bringing a whiff of sensations: “[t]he smell gets her first. Lemon polished wood, dusty cologne, and the faintest taint of burning, as if all the brains fired up by the books leave behind their smoke. And on the shelves, books: cheek to cheek, nestling together, inviting her to lean against the spines and shoulders” [220]. The physical presence of the place is conjured in terms that usually evoke evanescent childhood memories, thus playing on a paradox since Angela is discovering something new rather than experiencing the past: “Her mind is always full of stories, and now there are more outside her. She is home” [220]. No sooner has the child felt in communion with the place than “[f]our men in white overalls come in holding mallets and sacks” [220] and start destroying everything to the great joy of the museum guide: “ 'We are in luck', she says, 'You are about to see the last library being destroyed. Every last book will be incinerated. It's a rare event for the museum but they have to make way for other last things. That's progress'” [221]. The blatant humour hardly deflates the violence of the scene, even when the last librarian manages to challenge the guide's ludicrous attempt at rewriting history into some nonsensical story: “'Books', [...]'were made of paper and paper grew on trees, trees of course being bushes on stilts, if you can imagine that. They were grown by a kind of gardener, called an author'” [220]. More importantly still, the librarian has managed to give Angela three books and a word of advice which sums up the point of the whole story: “'You're the librarian now. Remember: magic. And that there are no such things as last words'” [221]. The violence is repeated with the irruption of two men in Angela's room two days later, they snatch the books away from her. But a piece of torn paper remains in her hand and she will plant it in the park, as will a little boy who also salvaged a torn page from the library. And as in a fairy tale, a tree of books emerges, each branch bearing fruit and the people rush to pick the books, to read them and then return them. The endless process of a natural library has started.

In between these two stories dedicated to libraries and books, a process of introspection is initiated. Special attention is given to dark spaces. Whether in the story by Robert Shearman, The Dark Space in the House in the House in the Garden at the Centre of the World, presented in second position, or in Sad Dark Thing by Michael Marshall Smith, in ante-penultimate position, the mystery of grief is approached through the revised pattern of the ghost story.

Although the theme of the haunted house, so beautifully developed by Virginia Woolf, comes to mind first, it is the form of a story for children, as suggested by the Chinese box pattern of the title, which prevails in the construction of meaning. References or allusions to traditional tales – Hansel and Gretel, Goldilocks, among others – link the destiny of Cindy and Steve with the wanderings of archetypal heroes and heroines. The initial dialogue about mistakes, apples and freedom, sounds like a conversation between God and Man. However, God appears as very human in his need to keep in touch with his creatures. He will be the victim of their constant dissatisfaction and will even die feeling unloved. The quest for happiness organised along five sections, like the five acts in a tragedy, is mocked as a relentless quest for unhappiness. The story ends on yet a new attempt, some sexual experimentation that promises some physical pain: “They wondered if they could dare. And then she smiled, and at that he smiled. And they knew they could be brave again, just one last time. They pushed onwards and inwards. And they went to someplace new” [31]. The woman has played her role as temptress once again.

The necessity to move on all the time is echoed in Smith's story, where the hero has experienced loss and has tried to control his reaction to it. He finds himself magically attracted to a place at the heart of a forest. “Side roads, old roads, forgotten roads” [201] take him to an abandoned cabin in which he encounters a “sad dark thing”; not so much a thing as a mood of deep sorrow that will allow him to finally grieve for his lost child and estranged wife, thus destroying the pattern of order to which he had reduced his meaningless life: “Finally he went indoors and lay in bed staring at the ceiling. He did this every night, even though there was nothing there to see: nothing unless it is that sad, dark thing that eventually takes us in its arms and makes us sleep” [216]. Suspense is preserved all along the story and the reader expects some kind of attack by the dangerous-looking owner of the cabin. But the ruffian is just another victim of the ghost; he is no psycho, unless he is responsible for the death of the boy who now plays tricks luring strangers to the heart of darkness. These two stories account for human restlessness and the reader needs to admit some sympathy for both forms of discontent.

Psychological pain is also the main topic of What's in Swindon? by Stewart Evers. The first person narrative tells the story of a young man who has to face all over again the pain of separation after his early love, Angela, asks him to meet him in a hotel in Swindon. The question asked in the title sets the pattern of incomprehension: “The last time I'd seen Angela Fulton she was leaving Wigan's World Famous Wonderland dragging a three-foot rabbit through a field of dirty fake snow” [32]. Elements of magic contrast with elements of dreary reality. Although the character believes in a perfect world, as a narrator he underlines everything that goes wrong. Even when he turns back to his past he does not fully understand what happened: “How we endured such isolation for so long is hard to say. I suspect now that we found it somehow romantic to live such a shabby, closed-off life [...] paralysed by the intimacy of our affair” [32-33]. The matter of fact description of his life prepares the reader for the surprise of the fake rekindling of an old flame. The tone of the narration belies the hope of the character who in the end learns that Angela is going to marry somebody else. And the final objective correlative anchors despair in the urban landscape: “She shut the door behind her and I went to the window to see her drive away. Across the by-pass, a twenty-four-hour supermarket glowed red and blue. I pulled on my jeans and headed out to get supplies” [39]. Thus starting with a hint to Orwell's The Road to Wigan's Pier and ending with the modernist technique of the objective correlative, the story underlines the similitude between the nineteen-thirties and society today with its mood of hopelessness.

In Dan Powell's Half-Mown Lawn, Annie's sense of loss after the death of her husband is also expressed through a series of objective correlatives. Each familiar object, each daily task becomes a burden. The flatness of tone conveys the pain to the reader. Finally, Annie goes to the garden where her husband fell, and “climbs into the outline of him and lays down, careful to keep herself entirely within its boundaries. [...] Annie lies still and listens to his heartbeat” [66]. In the short final sentence, love seems to conquer death.   

Jeanette Winterson in All I Know about Gertrude Stein pays another tribute to the modernist period. Alternating quotes from The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas with her own narrative, intertwining personal notations with general statements, Winterson draws a progressive definition of love:

Love is not sentimental. Love is not second best.

Women will have to take up arms for love.

Take me in your arms. This is the Here that we have” [198].

The capacity to isolate moments in one's life and to make sense of them is part of the modernist heritage acknowledged in this collection. In that sense Aperitifs with Mr Hemingway by Jonathan Trigell seems to complete the homage to Gertrude Stein: “I always enjoyed Hemingway. He knew how to write without getting all blousy about it. Hemingway always got it spot on” [110]. In this story that reads as a farewell letter, the narrator is planning his own death: “I always joked with Rose that I'd do a Hemingway if she went first. Joked but quietly meant it too” [110]. In a series of short paragraphs weaving together memories from the past and actions from the present, the narrator builds up the brief story of a man who has to become a murderer before he can kill himself; the story of a man who regains control over his life and wants to put it down in words: “But I'm writing this, just in case I do make that decision. Just to explain it all a bit. Just out of respect, you might say” [113].

The very fluid narrative of Jon McGregor's We Wave and Call, relates how a young man drowns. The hero is only called “you” and does not realise what is happening. It becomes the story of the reader calmly carried out on the current of words. Each paragraph isolates a clear moment of perception and progressively enhances the distance between the swimmer and the rest of the world, till “You swim and you rest. It won't take long now. It's not too far. You look up, past the headland and into the next bay along, and you swim and you rest a little more. Sometimes it happens like this” [187].

Writing about the meanders of the mind becomes the very topic of Alice in Time and Space and Various Major Cities. H.P. Tinker's narrator starts out telling the story of Alice in “a new era of super volcanoes and climate chaos, the American psyche was in turmoil, and a fraud of frankly massive magnitude had spread its tentacles around the globe” [40]. Alice needs to be saved from “an evening of typical British rubbishness” [40]. We soon discover that nothing means quite what it seems to mean and we have to decipher the “metaphorical waves” [41] that threaten to engulf the characters and the whole narrative. We do not really know whether we have plunged into the troubled mind of a writer struggling with his character or whether two characters interact. The long list of disconnected questions asked by Alice, from “What is Time? Has Darwin killed God? Did God kill Darwin? [...] What's the secret of a perfect soufflé? [...]” to “Is everything we know about the universe actually wrong?” [45] is not answered by words but by sex: “I entered her shortly afterwards with Chekhovian precision” [45]. When the narrator “[w]ith just a very fake sense of American optimism to keep [him] going [...] retire[s] to bed with a bottle of Benzedrine” [47], the list of the books he reads covers a page and a half and leaves us with “Wayne Booth's The Rhetoric of Fiction” [48]. In the end “Alice had just turned herself into a kind of novel – a very short novel” [49] whose title is the title of the story we are reading.

The theme of writing is expanded upon in 'I'm the Guy Who Wrote The Wild Bunch' by Julian Cough, a story somewhat out of sync with the rest of the collection. An interview with a screenwriter, who has just died, reveals how negotiations between the producers and the script writers can progressively take away the identity of the script. “By the end of the casting process The Wild Bunch were a band of little kids in fucking sailor suits, and a sexy nun” [72]. The reader shares the frustration and expects the failure of the film when the final twist reveals that it was Donovan's major success, that it won oscars and made a lot of money. It also provided Julie Andrews with her first decisive part. The last sentence sums up the point of the whole story, it sounds like a serious debunking of the notion of art and the place of the artist: “I still think it's Sam's best film. But that's show business” [73].

The theme of remembrance is given a twist in Those Who Remember by Joel Lane. The background of urban deprivation serves as the unexpected setting for another ghost story. The narrator finds an old friend in a council estate where he wastes his life away on drugs. The dreary account of the detox process ends with the strange proposal to go and kill two guys from their past. But the reader is first taken aback when the murder scene turns into what seems to be a suicide scene. Indeed, the narrator asks his friend to stab him and then describes his own agony. The juxtaposed narrative of another murder scene creates a second major surprise: the reader realises that, in fact, the narrator is haunting his killer, saving him every few years to turn him into the victim of a serious beating before forcing him to re-enact the murder. Midway through the story, a first attempt at clearing the meaning of the title is made, “those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it. And those who remember do it anyway” [78]. But the force of the trauma only becomes clear when the all too realistic atmosphere of gay-bashing brings together victim and executioner, when repetition comes to define the structure of the narrative itself.

The overwhelming power of the past transpires through the smooth chronology of one day at the pool in Sheila Duffy's To Brixton Beach. Starting with two young boys escaping in the middle of the night towards the coolness of the pond. Charlie's brother is not mentioned again. The attention focused first on Charlie shifts onto other swimmers, then onto Helen the young mother who remembers the days when she admired the young mothers. Then onto two old ladies whose bodies bear the scars of life and who do not try to forget times of suffering. Then onto Ameena who no longer denies herself the pleasure of water although she has to change out of her hijab. And finally back to Charlie when the night has come. But this time he is alone and a grown man. “Behind him the water holds the memory of a man moving through it in cool midnight, a celluloid pool in which he flickers to life, and is gone” [90-91].

The necessity to escape from the past is exemplified in The visit by Jaki McCarrick. Brendan has been looking forward to the visit of his friend Pat Coleman, hoping to share the memories of their political youth back in London. But “[a]s the crowds dispersed, he saw a ghost; the tall, hulking frame of Pat Coleman” [53]. Walking along the streets, in the happy atmosphere of the preparation for President Clinton's visit, Pat refuses to indulge in nostalgic talk and systematically contradicts his friend's expectations. No more beer, no more wild dreams, no more reconstruction of the past. Pat, leaves early in the morning, leaving a note: “Now, for god's sake man, would you ever give that town a chance” [60]. And the reader realises, at the same time as the hero Brendan, that it has all been about missing the new opportunities and real pleasures of a new life.

Neil Campbell's ironic title Sun on Prospect Street presents another desolate urban landscape, defined by a series of lines which make it all the more inhuman. Two boys while away their boredom, playing by the canal, glancing at a magazine, at their own bodies or playing football. When a band of three thugs attack them, their friendship does not resist and they don't even try to protect each other. A few days after the dissolution of their friendship, “Joe watches from his bedroom window as Leo's mum and dad put furniture into a big white van. He looks at the back of Leo's head until the car turns right at the end of Prospect Street” [121]. Isolation prevails over friendship.

Lack of communication skills is what characterises the hero of Tarnished Sorry Open by Jo Lloyd. Spending his life facing his computer screen but unable to face his fellow workers, Patrick finds himself just as dysfunctional when he finally attends a party. The description of the party through his eyes leaves the reader with a similar feeling of life passing by without making sense.

In iAnna, a story which would be hilarious if it was not frightfully plausible, Will Self has a young psychiatrist comment on the symptoms of a newly appeared illness; i-phrenia, for the benefit of a colleague now retired. The patient mistakes the real world for an i-pad and clicks on the figures she wants to interact with. Ironically, the narrator's only comment on fiction concerns the psychiatrist: “With the nightmarish alacrity only witnessed in imperfectly constructed fiction Busner had cleared his plate” [145]. Thus he indirectly underlines the elegance of the slow tempo of his story, mimicking the “fluidly elegant motions” [142] of Anna, now called iAnna. Half-way through the story, the pattern is inverted when the retired doctor turns Anna into the computer and manages to make her comment on her own fears. Finally he offers a simple solution to send the patient back to the “community”, thus sparing the deflated budget of the hospital and allowing his junior to publish a paper in a scientific review, aptly entitled The British Journal of Ephemera [147].

But sometimes only confused memories define the life of the surviving spirit as in the shortest story in the collection, Wide and Deep in which Socrates Adams gives a voice to an old man suffering from dementia. He remembers the deepest emotions of his adult life, linked to the birth of his son and the death of his wife. But references to time or age make no sense in his account; the reader understands the feeling of loss is counterbalanced by the intensity of the surviving emotions for the old man, only when, against all probabilities, he states: “I am totally mad because of my dementia” [94]. Fiction only can reconcile reason and madness.

The strange experience of Mr Todd in The Room Beyond by Ramsey Campbell, conveys the confusion of a man who comes back to a town he has not seen for fifty years to attend a funeral. Mistaken by the half-broken sign of a hotel, he thinks he has entered the place where his uncle and aunt used to take him for Sunday lunch. The carefully chosen adjectives and verbs convey an atmosphere of gloom, in keeping with the circumstances of his visit, while his constant attempt to compare what he sees with what he remembers and his “feeling threatened with a second childhood”, because of the way the receptionist treats him, give a humourous tone to his disappointment. The strange noises he hears at night in the room next door, his discovery of books on surgery changes the atmosphere to that of a thriller. Then the plot becomes uncanny and ends with what might be the hero's death: “'He's gone at last'. They switched off the power and shut him in, and the light left him so immediately that he had no time to be sure that the room was yet another antechamber” [140].

Taking us from story to story, Nicholas Royle leads us through a series of (ante)chambers which provide us with a glimpse of humanity but always open onto new possibilities. The true pleasure of reading is enhanced by his sense of orchestration.


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