New Fiction Uncovered column: ten short story writers

My second guest column for Fiction Uncovered is now live. I want to cover my main reading interests in these columns, so this one is a celebration of short stories. It’s a list of ten recommended contemporary British short story writers. It’s not a ‘top ten’ as such, because of course there are more than ten authors whom I could have included – and I’d love to hear about your favourite short story writers in the comments.

Further reading

Here are links to my reviews of some of the stories and books mentioned in the column:

The Silver Wind by Nina Allan
Ten Stories About Smoking by Stuart Evers
‘Butcher’s Perfume’ by Sarah Hall
The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales by Kirsty Logan
The Stone Thrower by Adam Marek
This Isn’t the Sort of Thing that Happens to Someone Like You by Jon McGregor
Mr Fox by Helen Oyeyemi
Leading the Dance by Sarah Salway
Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical and Everyone’s Just So So Special by Robert Shearman
Diving Belles by Lucy Wood

Keep up to date with my Fiction Uncovered columns here.

A story from Hotel Alpha

Hotel AlphaToday is publication day for a novel I’ve been looking forward to since I first heard about it: Hotel Alpha by Mark Watson. Although best known as a comedian, Watson has also been written some very smart novels (I reviewed his Eleven a few years ago). Hotel Alpha is his fifth, and chronicles forty years in the life of a central London hotel. What’s particularly intriguing, though, is that Watson has written a hundred short stories (from the length of a tweet to a thousand words or more) to go with it – stories that exist within and fill some of the gaps in the novel.

I’ll be reviewing Hotel Alpha for the October issue of Shiny New Books; for now, though, I’m hosting one of the hundred stories here. It’s only a couple of paragraphs, but I love the emotions that it evokes. You’ll find the rest of the stories at http://www.hotelalphastories.com.

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Story 48: Room 76, 1970

Every time someone knocks on any of the bloody doors in this place, it sounds like it’s yours. This is the third time he’s sprung to his feet, gone to jerk open the door, and not found herthere. Once it was a visitor for the person the other side of the wall: a visitor who ought not, from the look on her face, to be there. Once it was a housekeeper in a uniform so white it looked brand new; she glanced wryly at him before being admitted two doors down. And this time there is nobody there at all. Whoever made the knock has been noiselessly admitted to a room, or was the product of his imagination. Or a ghost.

It’s not as if it could be her, anyhow. She isn’t coming back. He has lost her. She is with somebody else; or she’s with nobody else, but happy; she’s happy without him, that’s the point. And that’s how it has to be. He doesn’t deserve another chance, probably. It’s just that a hotel promises everything, or at least rules nothing out. Anything, in its neutrality, can be imagined. Nobody made of the ordinary human stuff can hear a knock on a door, even the wrong door, without believing for a few seconds that the impossible has happened, and the person they have longed for is here after all.

Reading round-up: late July

Notes on some of my recent reading…

BurtonJessie Burton, The Miniaturist (2014)

Amsterdam, 1686: Nella Oortman is aged eighteen and about to begin her new life as wife of the successful merchant Johannes Brandt – but she is met at the house by Brandt’s stand-offish sister, Marin; the merchant himself is nowhere to be seen. There are secrets to be uncovered in the Brandt household, and someone seems to know about them than ought to be possible – the mysterious miniaturist who sends Nella models for the replica house that was Brandt’s wedding gift. The Miniaturist is a pacey historical mystery; but it’s also about what it means to challenge social roles – Nella, Brandt and Marin all step outside the norms that society prescribes for them, and Jessie Burton explores the ramifications of this in an intriguing debut.

Andrew Crumey, Mr Mee (2000) and Mobius Dick (2004)

Andrew Crumey has been on my list of authors to try for quite some time, having head very good things about his work. Now I have tried him – thanks to Dedalus Books and their new editions of two Crumey novels – and my only regret is that I didn’t do it earlier.

I can’t think of a better way to sum up Crumey’s work in a few words than ‘comedy of ideas’, which is how its blurb describes Mr Mee. Crumey presents us with three narrative threads. In the first, Mr Mee – an elderly amateur researcher – writes to an unknown correspondent detailing his attempts to find out more about Jean-Bernard Rosier, an 18th century French thinker who appeared to have some fairly advanced ideas on physics. The second thread takes us to Paris of 1761 and Ferrand and Minard, copyists in possession of Rosier’s writings, who flee the city and end up living next to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The third strand concerns Petrie, a university lecturer on Rousseau who wants to get closer to one of his students. There’s a good deal of humour in this novel – particularly in Mr Mee’s delightful unworldliness, as he tries to navigate the byways of the internet – but also intrigue from seeing how the different plot threads will tie together. And, though Rosier’s rarefied ideas may be at the root, I find it’s the simpler, more personal revelations that really hit home in Mr Mee.

Both of these books remind me of Christopher Priest’s work, particularly in the sense that reality within them is mutable, but this is mediated through textual accounts, with the added layers of uncertainty that they bring. Mobius Dick put me specifically in mind of Priest’s The Affirmation, as both create multiple realities that vie for validity. Crumey switches between the stories of John Ringer, a university lecturer in quantum physics; and Harry Dick, a man who wakes up in hospital having lost his memory. Alongside these are extracts from novels by one Heinrich Behring, often featuring Erwin Schrödinger. There are contradictions between the different narrative tracks, and once again, the intrigue comes from seeing exactly how these will be resolved. Science and art are intertwined in Mobius Dick, with the sense that both are different ways of addressing the idea of ‘reality’. I like that approach, and I’ll be reading more of Crumey in the future.

Ismailov

Hamid Ismailov, The Dead Lake (2011)
Translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield, 2014

This short novel by Usbek writer Hamid Ismailov is the first title in Peirene Press’s ‘coming-of-age’ series. It’s the tale of Yerzhan, a promising young violinist from the Kazakh steppes who has a crush on his neighbour’s daughter, Aisulu. Yerzhan’s life is changed irrevocably when, trying to impress, Aisulu, he dives into a lake which has been poisoned by nuclear testing – and his growth is arrested from thereon.

There’s a fairytale quality to The Dead Lake, as events take an absurd, exaggerated turn; for example, while Yerzhan’s body remains that of a child, Aisulu grows immensely tall. This quality is reflected in the tone of Andrew Bromfield’s translation, which also evokes the vast openness of the landscape in which Ismailov’s story takes place – an openness that contrasts with the way Yerzhan has become trapped. The Dead Lake as a whole is a work of contrast, one that might appear whimsical at times, but never lets you forget the seriousness lying underneath.

Linda Mannheim, Above Sugar Hill (2014)

This collection is from Influx Press, a publisher of ‘site-specific’ fiction. The stories in Above Sugar Hill are all set in Washington Heights, the area of New York City where Linda Mannheim grew up. It’s not a place I know myself, but Mannheim’s characters, and the worlds they inhabit, come vividly off the page. A couple of examples: ‘Once’ tells of a troubled girl’s on-off friendship with a woman who had a difficult past of her own; the background is one of idealism and protest fading away, just as some of the local buildings are decaying. In ‘Tenor’, through a series of interviews, we hear of Ira Gittman, a housing activist who disappeared in tragic circumstances; it is implied that Gittman’s story could be the story of many others – and the whole collection implies that there are many more stories like these out there, waiting to be told.

Kirsty Logan, The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales (2014)

Rental HeartI have a new review up at Shiny New Books, looking at Kirsty Logan‘s debut story collection The Rental Heart, from Salt Publishing. This is a lovely set of stories, the kind of lush fantasy you can file alongside Lucy Wood and Jess Richards.

Let me also point you towards a review in the Independent by my fellow Desmond Elliott shadower Kaite Welsh; she loved the book as well.

#IFFP2014: Ogawa, Knausgaard, Mingarelli

Yoko Ogawa, Revenge (1998)
Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder (2013)

RevengeI’ve read two of Yoko Ogawa’s books previously (see my thoughts on Hotel Iris and The Diving Pool); each time, I have been struck by how she anatomises the dark psyches of her characters. Revenge is a little different: a collection of eleven linked stories, it unsettles more through the overall effect of the tales as a composite.

Revenge begins with ‘Afternoon at the Bakery’, whose narrator goes to buy two strawberry shortcakes; a conversation with someone from the neighbouring shop reveals that the narrator is doing this in memory of her six-year-old son, whom she found dead in a refrigerator. This is how Ogawa’s stories work: mundane details are shown to have dark, sometimes even absurd, underpinnings.

‘Afternoon at the Bakery’ ends with its narrator discovering a young woman crying in the bakery’s kitchen.  This young woman reappears in the second tale’s, ‘Fruit Juice’, when she invites that story’s narrator, a boy from her school, to go with her as moral support to a meal with the father she is about to meet for the first time. Strawberry cake is served is served at this meal; by story’s end, we not only know why the young woman is crying as she sits in her kitchen, we also anticipate with dismay what her reaction to the current customer’s order is likely to be.

As Ogawa’s collection continues, more links emerge between the stories: at first, isolated details reappear; then characters seem to recur (the identities of some remain sketchy, so you can’t be entirely sure whether or not character X mentioned in one story is also character Y from another); one story in Revenge may appear to be fictional in the reality of another; images and events are repeated or echoed in strange new contexts. The relative straightforwardness of Ogawa’s prose (and Stephen Snyder’s effectively matter-of-fact translation) only heightens the sense of being caught up in a world where it’s uncertain which is worse: the thought that all the details of reality won’t cohere, or the thought that they might. Revenge is one of those story collections that works, and is best appreciated, as a complete whole; it’s also one that stays in the mind long after reading.

Karl Ove Knausgaard, A Man in Love: My Struggle, Book 2 (2009)
Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett (2013)

Knausgaard 2Where Volume 1 of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle focused on its author’s adolescence and reaction to his father’s death, Volume 2 chronicles the period when Knausgaard left his first wife and moved to Sweden, where he fell in love with Linda, and examines his life as a husband and father. Reading A Man in Love has been a strange experience because, while the general palette of the first book remains – the dense treatment of everyday minutiae, punctuated by reflections on life and art – some quality that made A Death in the Family feel transcendent to me is missing.

Knausgaard takes up his key concerns from the first volume: that he feels preoccupied by the business of everyday life when what he really wants (needs) to do is write; and that he is more deeply moved by contemplating art and the natural world than by those closest to him. In this volume, he also talks more about how fatherhood affects his sense of masculinity; feeling constrained by Swedish society; and how the heady rush of falling in love with Linda didn’t last.

Don Barlett’s translation is as fine as ever, but A Man in Love doesn’t touch me as deeply as its predecessor did. When I read A Death in the Family, I could feel the clash of Knausgaard’s emotions rising off the page; with this book, that clash is still on the page, but it stays there. To me, A Death in the Family felt like something that Knausgaard needed to write in order to work through that part of his life; A Man in Love is good enough as far as it goes, but doesn’t have that same sense of urgency.

Hubert Mingarelli, A Meal in Winter (2012)
Translated from the French by Sam Taylor (2013)

Meal in WinterHubert Mingarelli is a prolific author in his native France, but A Meal in Winter is the first of his books to appear in English. It’s a novella narrated by one of three German guards who are sent out to retrieve an escaped Jewish prisoner. On their way back to the prison camp, the guards and their captive stop off in an abandoned house, and start to prepare a meal of soup. When a Pole walking past the house also seeks shelter, his raw anti-Semitism leads the guards to question what they’re about to do.

With A Meal in Winter being so short, the stage is set for a tight, intense piece of fiction. In some ways, this is exactly what we get: Mingarelli strips out most of the historical detail, thereby closing the distance between reader and book. The characters’ world is not ‘World War Two’ understood as a period of history; their world is this journey, this landscape, this house, and we are there with them.

It doesn’t seem quite right, though, to say that we come to empathise with the guards as the novella progresses. It’s more that we see the contours of their worldview, and how that is challenged by their experiences; empathy at a further remove, perhaps. But I can’t shake the feeling that the full intensity of this situation doesn’t quite come through the sparseness of Mingarelli’s prose (or Sam Taylor’s translation). For me, A Meal in Winter is almost there… but only almost.

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What of these books’ chances on the IFFP shortlist? Even though the Knausgaard disappointed me, I will be extremely surprised if it doesn’t make the shortlist (though I don’t expect it to be my preferred winner). I would be happy to see Ogawa’s book on the shortlist, and suspect it has a good chance. The Mingarelli, I don’t know: it didn’t really work well enough for me to want to see it shortlisted, but it has been better received in the reviews I’ve seen, so it may just be a book that didn’t click with me.

This post is part of a series on the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

Reading round-up: late January

The ThiefFuminori Nakamura, The Thief (2009)
Translated from the Japanese by Satoko Izumo and Stephen Coates, 2012

Nishimura is a pickpocket, and so spends his days blending in even as he stands apart. He was once part of a group brought together by a man named Kizaki to rob a set of documents from a speculator’s house – or, rather, to be the expendable distraction, as the speculator was killed soon after. Now Kizaki is back, and has a new proposition for Nishimura. In this lean and spare novel, Fuminori Nakamura is concerned to explore what it means to live a life like Nishimura’s. The title of The Thief may not just refer to its protagonist; it could also be seen as applying to Kizaki, who has stolen Nishimura’s control over his own life. The layers of theft and manipulation go all the way down.

Dr Benjamin Daniels, Further Confessions of a GP (2014)

This is a follow-up to the first book in The Friday Project’s ‘Confessions’ series, whose (usually pseudonymous) authors pull back the curtain on their various professions with a collection of anecdotes. I’ve enjoyed all of these books that I’ve read; but I find there’s something particularly special about Daniels’ titles. He’s a good raconteur, that’s for sure; but he also controls tone superbly. He goes from telling  amusing stories, to expressing heartfelt opinions on particular aspects of healthcare, to poignant reflections on the patients he knows he can’t save. Both his books are well worth reading.

Yoko Ogawa, The Diving Pool (1990-1)
Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder, 2008

A collection of three novellas by the author of Hotel Iris; as in that novel, Ogawa explores some dark psychological territory in a way that belies the spare tone of her prose. The title story’s narrator is infatuated with her foster-brother, and prone to a blank cruelty which is unlikely to lead anywhere good. In ‘Pregnancy Diary’, a girl chronicles the ups and downs of her sister’s pregnancy, which she seems to regard with equal parts fascination and contempt. ‘Dormitory’ is more dreamlike (or nightmarish), as a woman returns to her old college dormitory, finding it a very strange place indeed. (For more on The Diving Pool, see Tony Malone’s readalong at January in Japan.)

Skinning Tree

Srikumar Sen, The Skinning Tree (2012)

As Japanese forces encroach on India during the Second World War, young Sabby is sent from his family in Calcutta to a boarding school in the northern hills. Sen’s novel is a portrait of Sabby’s illusions being comprehensively shattered, and the consequences that follow. Not only is school discipline harsh; the bright world which Sabby imagined himself to inhabit is taken from him. He has become Anglo-Indian without ever knowing what England means. And where the school’s regime fosters violence, so the boys follow – to a tragic end that Sabby can barely bring himself to recall.

Lee Ki-ho, At Least We Can Apologize (2009)
Translated from the Korean by Christopher J. Dykas, 2013

Jin-man and Si-bong met in a psychiatric institution, where they were routinely beaten by the caretakers for… well, they didn’t know; so they started coming up with their own wrongs to confess. When the institution is raided and shut down by the authorities, the two stick together because Jin-man has nowhere else to go. They set up in business, offering apologies on behalf of other people; and, if there’s nothing to apologise for, Si-bong and Jin-man will find something – or create it. The pair go to ever greater lengths as Lee’s novel progresses; and the book never quite turns in the way you might expect, up to the very end. (This book is part of the Library of Korean Literature series from Dalkey Archive Press.)

Sunday Story Society: ‘Ofodile’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

sundaystorysmall

Sunday Story Society is a monthly feature in which I review a (usually recent) short story.  The stories will be available for free online, so if you like, you can read along and talk about the story in the comments.

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Ofodile‘ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was published by the Guardian in their recent series of Christmas ghost stories – though there isn’t necessarily just one ghost, or only one type of haunting.

The scene is a house in Nigeria, where the narrator Chinelo’s younger brother, Ofodile, is kept shut away in his room; the pink pills his mother gives him are just about the only thing that quietens Ofodile’s constant screaming. There is a sense in which Ofodile and his parents are ghosts who haunt each other: the mother and father don’t really know (or at least aren’t interested in) how to look after Ofodile; though he is aged six, his cries are the only way he can respond. Chinelo says: “With Ukalechi [the nanny], Ofodile had screamed and screamed, but with my mother he screamed and slept.” That’s about as much as can be hoped for under the status quo.

As the story begins, new neighbours – a doctor and his wife – come around to introduce themselves. It’s possible to read the woman of this couple as a supernatural entity; even if we don’t, though, the neighbours are a disruptive presence in the narrator’s household, who provide the impetus for the story’s decisive change. We might say that Adichie uses the structure, the movements, of a ghost story to portray this family’s moment of crisis.

Adichie has an eye for telling detail in the story. At the beginning, the attitude of Ofodile’s parents towards him is underlined by points such as “the foam-carpeted floor that caught his falls” (because his mother and father don’t catch him), or his mother’s “movements thick with duty” (but not with care) as she feeds him. At the end, it’s the little details that bring Chinelo closer to her brother: “His mouth was slack but he looked like me, the sparse eyebrows, the nose that flared.”

Chinelo decides that she is going to feed Ofodile now, in the dining room. The small detail of the location is important to her, become a symbol of the change: the boy who haunted his room will finally enter the heart of the home.