A good short story is hard to beat – but harder to write. In under 10,000 words (there are no hard and fast rules about the “proper” length of a short story, but safe to say any piece of writing more than 10,000 words could not be considered short) an author must successfully create a number of elements, and blend them.
As in most fiction, the characters should be compelling, the setting should be clear and there should be some conflict or jeopardy. Plot, in the context of short stories is less important than mood, which should dominate clearly and consistently.
One of the reasons why there is such an appetite for this type of fiction is that they are almost always easily devoured in one sitting. They require intense bursts of attention and reward readers handsomely with plenty to think about.
Our roundup features the best short story collections released so far this year. We were looking for works which felt of the moment but whose shine wouldn’t fade years from now, with writing we felt could be described as modern classics.
We wanted to give a full flavour of what these collections offer readers when it comes to tone and style, but also in terms of plot. We’ve tried to avoid including story spoilers, but should warn you that in some cases we have been more explicit about how the tale unfolds than in others.
‘Being Various: New Irish Short Stories’ edited by Lucy Caldwell
Each of the stories in this anthology have been commissioned especially – which is a real treat for short story lovers. Caldwell’s introduction serves as a rationale which questions extensively what it means to be Irish, although the entire collection does this, too. The name of volume derives from a phrase by poet and playwright Louis MacNeice, who once wrote of “the drunkenness of things being various”.
The first story, about a woman who falls in love with a dead man, is an immediate challenge to what we might think it means to be Irish. Written by Yan Ge, we see Ireland through the eyes of an immigrant, from someone who straddles two worlds and cultures. Each story jolts you far from the previous one. “The Swimmers” is a queasy, uncomfortable read given that the narrator is the young, naive son of a paedophile who drives young boys to their swimming lessons in a smelly old bus.
Sally Rooney’s “Colour and Light” tackles isolation, success and power play as two mutually interested parties with their own insecurities fail to act satisfactorily on what is clear flirtation. In “A Partial List of the Saved”, Danielle Mclaughlin writes of a recently divorced man who warns off his elderly father’s girlfriend, only to find out she is leaving him anyway.
Louise O’Neill’s “Legends” tells the toe-curling story of an intelligent but emotionally unsound young woman who has returned from college to her provincial village but finds herself in a degrading situation that only serves to exacerbate her self-destructive tendencies. O’Neill writes about shame so brilliantly, so viscerally, and with such brutality that this story cannot fail to haunt you. This is a full house of brilliance – not a dud work in sight.
‘You Know You Want This’, Kristen Roupenian
“Cat Person”, the short story which went viral in The New Yorker is what made Roupenian famous – read by millions of people across the globe when it was published in 2018. But it is the collection “Cat Person” belongs to which cements her status as a master of the short story. The work here show she is anything but a one hit wonder. These are creepy, dark, nasty little tales that are brilliantly executed, leaving the reader unmoored somewhere between nervous and totally freaked out.
The first story – of a couple who use sex to emotionally torture a vulnerable house guest is shocking, and yet we knew it was coming. She pushes the form of the traditional fairy tale – writing of a queen who essentially falls in love with herself disguised inside an actual load of old rubbish. Roupenian’s slow, subtle narrative climbs to often unseen horrors. She leaves plenty of things unsaid, asking readers to let their own minds fill in the blanks.
“Sardines”, the story of a child’s birthday party turned rogue and lethal in the woods has the feel of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”, a coldly terrifying tale which, like “Cat Person”, was first published in The New Yorker to a deluge of responses from readers.
We loved reading “Cat Person” a second time around – it’s still excellent, relevant, relatable and the ending still delivers a sucker punch – but the best thing about this collection is that this story is not the main event. These stories might seem disparate in terms of tone, style, subject matter and even voice – but when you look closely, you see that they are all telling the story of women in modern life. Women who are by turns angry, imperfect, guilty and repulsive. And it feels so relatable.
‘Salt Slow’, Julia Armfield
You might have already heard great things about this collection – and we’re here to tell you that they are all true. Yet this is a set of unnerving, creepy and otherworldly stories where you second guess what to take literally. Armfield has the ability to make the surreal feel typical – her storytelling is so assured that you accept her backdrops and characters – from a Catholic schoolgirl who morphs into a huge predatory insect and devours a boy to the personification of sleep – without question.
Just when you think you’ve got the measure of her talents, Armfield reveals another string to her bow, she is also incredibly funny. We laughed out loud at this from “The Collectables”: “Someone had once told Miriam that she looked like Princess Anne and this throwaway comment had come, over time, to form the basis of her whole personality. She wore green velvet loafers year round, pinned her hair in the shape of a pumpkin, spoke like her molars were made of glass.” This is such a confident and brilliant work. Armfield has the rare gift of looking like she doesn’t need to try.
‘Fabulous’, Lucy Hughes-Hallett
Never judge a book by its cover, right? And don’t. Because this cover with its hazy rainbow smear and trite title, seems totally incongruous to its contents – which are clever, unusual and highly original. Especially when you consider that the etymology of “fabulous” is in fact “fable”.
Hughes-Hallett has taken characters from ancient mythology, fable and folklore and dragged them kicking and screaming into the here and now. She retells these stories against this modern backdrop.
At the end of the book is a section in which Hughes-Hallett summarises the fables from which she derived the stories retold in Fabulous. You might find yourself comparing the two tellings of the same tale, noticing how Hughes-Hallett treats certain elements – how she molds them to suit her new story. This certainly adds another layer of appreciation for what is already excellent writing.
The standout story is “Actaeon”, in which we meet a dazzling but arrogant estate agent whose fall from grace – and to his death as it turns out – comes after he is caught peeking at his boss as she showers. His boss is called Diana – and Diana was, in ancient mythology, a goddess who was stared at as she bathed in the nude by an ill-fated hunter. This is a strange and rather brilliant collection – and if you knew nothing about fable or myth before, your appetite will be well and truly whet.
‘The Sun On My Head’ Geovani Martins
These stories are all set in and around the favelas of Rio de Janiero, and are all told from the perspective of boys coming of age there. Race and class are central themes here, although the stories are also of love and family and friendships.
The first – “Lil Spin” – is tough, or at least it might feel that way for anyone who likes an easy read. The dialect is colloquial, urban and with an exclusive subtext. This is a language of secrecy – the verbal code used by the subculture of the streets. The fact that white middle-class western readers don’t find it easy to navigate is the entire point. But you’ll be hooked as you follow a group of youths through a drug hazy afternoon – all the way to inevitable trouble.
Each story differs in tone and style – so much so that you wonder if they really have come from the same author. But what binds the tales here is the voice – with its street-smart bravado, bitter edge and an emotional intelligence that proves compelling. Martins handles masculinity and fragility with equal commitment. In the conflicting imagery of drugs, guns and butterflies, readers are made to appreciate the importance and weight that each object holds within the pages of this slim but substantial volume.
‘Orange World’ Karen Russell
The cover of this volume is crammed with praise for Russell’s storytelling capabilities – and within minutes one can see why. She takes premises that are at the least surreal, at most ridiculous, and weaves compelling, tight and confident prose around them with an awesome vocabulary.
The first story, “The Prospectors”, appears at first to be a romp through Depression-struck America, starring two beguiling but sly women with a talent for picking locks, until they happen upon death and danger. In a later story, we meet Cillian who falls in love with an Iron Age body, who has been preserved in peaty bog for some 2,000 years.
The final tale, “Orange World”, describes a first-time mother’s deal with the devil – a hairy, panting, toothy oaf of a creature with an insatiable hunger for breastmilk. In between all of the fantastical elements, Russell offers nuggets of humdrum realism in her observations: “Uncle Sean was as blandly ugly as a big toenail.” The contrast is just magic. These are longer short stories, you won’t hop and skip through them in 15 minutes apiece. The scope of Russell’s imagine is hard to conceive – you’ll need to read to believe.
‘I Will Not Be Erased’ edited by gal-dem
Gal-dem, the award-winning online and print magazine created by women and non-binary people of colour, have released this volume in which contributing writers use raw materials from their youth as a tool for giving advice to their younger selves. Although more personal essay than short fiction, these stories – poignant, thought provoking, sad and funny on topics as varied as sexuality, power and family – are deserving of the widest possible audience.
Standouts include Sara Jafari who writes a letter to her younger self in “My Virginity And My Choice” all about the awkward point where dating in Britain bisects traditional Muslim values.
Or Kemi Alemoru’s “I Hate You” where the writer’s teenage relationship with her mother and her sense of self as a black girl in a very white school are brought into sharp focus before the author concedes that her mother had been her ally all along: “Learning to see my mother as a person rather than my ‘fat head’ oppressor was one of the greatest gifts of my twenties.” This collection might be intended for a young audience, but we think readers of all ages will benefit from the stories told here.
‘Look How Happy I’m Making You’ Polly Rosenwaike
These stories, concerned as they are with motherhood – longing and waiting for motherhood, mothering, being mothered – are for everyone. The collection opens with the tale of a woman who is trying without success to be a mother when her younger sister, who has never much coveted parenthood, deliberates over whether to go ahead with her unexpected pregnancy.
Readers also join a group of motherless, childless women on Mother’s Day and observe a woman suffer a miscarriage in tandem with a career low. Rosenwaike doesn’t shy away from the nitty gritty. Far from abstract euphemisms, her stories confront the stark, often shocking realities of miscarriage and abortion with brutal detail.
These are quotidian, universal stories. You won’t find thrilling twists or plots given over to the extraordinary. But what is rare is Rosenwaike’s voice. She captures what it is to be a mother, a would-be mother, an almost mother or a not-mother with such clever perceptiveness making the stories recognisable, familiar and strangely comforting.
‘Home Remedies’ Xuan Juliana Wang
Clever and strange, these stories move from America to China and back again, with themes of identity, privilege and race. In the first story – “Mott Street in July” – readers live with immigrant families in one room apartments in New York’s Chinatown, as Wang compares their fates to that of the carp which were gladly introduced to American waters decades ago – only to be derided later when they began to dominate.
“Days of Being Mild” is a snapshot into the lives of rich “bei paio”: Beijing-based hipsters with a wavering sense of direction, who don’t want to be anything like their obedient, diligent parents. We especially enjoyed the story from which the collection takes its name – “Home Remedies For Non-Life-Threatening Ailments”.
It’s experimental in its form – a list of symptoms including boredom, inappropriate feelings and guilt – and their remedies, which range from seducing married men to flooding the home of a close family member. These collectively reveal the interior world of a young woman grappling with who she is and where she has come from.
‘Rock, Paper, Scissors
and Other Stories’ Maxim Osipov
Chekov fans – rejoice! Although chances are you’ll probably already know all about Maxim Osipov – a Russian cardiologist-cum-author who specialises in writing about the lives of provincial folk. But this is the first of Osipov’s collections of stories to be translated into English. Readers are reminded of Chekov repeatedly throughout the collection. Violence, sickness, corruption – it’s all there, but in the context of the everyday.
This is summed up nicely in “Moscow-Petrozavodsk”, a queasy train journey populated by a cast of mysterious players who turn out to be worse than they seemed, with the statement “Killers – they’re just your average people”. In “Polish Friend”, we accompany a violin player through her life (and across Europe) which is chartered by the presence of a mysterious Pole, the unseen object of her affections. Until he shows up and breaks the spell.
This is subtle, honest and unaffected storytelling where the lives of normal people are picked up and examined closely – to remarkable effect.
The verdict: Short story collections