I am a recent short story convert. I enjoy a saga as much as the next reader, but my patience and attention span is growing thinner for door-stopper tomes. I need a break. Short stories are the easiest salve. Much like poems, they can be particularly non-affecting to the novice reader until you stumble upon their secret wonder. In the past, I’ve found short stories to be, well, too short. They can lack the depth and rigour of a novel. But then I had the pleasure of finding a whole slew of contemporary writers who are masters at the form. The stories in these collections may be short, but they’re finely crafted gems - all the more harrowing for their concise, glancing blows on the reader.
The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen I picked up this volume while committing the cardinal sin of literary - judging a book by its cover. It was pretty, so I bought it. It wasn’t until I returned home that I realised I’d bought a short story collection. Lucky for me, Nguyen is a master. His novel won the Pulitzer Prize. This follow-up is the work of a writer at the top of his game. Each story is roughly centred around an immigration experience, but there is none of the cumbersome heaviness that a lesser writer would possess with such a topic. Instead, each character is startlingly realised. The humanity of the immigration is experience is touching, occasionally funny, and heart-breaking. I read it in a gulp.
A Few Days In The Country by Elizabeth Harrower Crushingly under-appreciated, Elizabeth Harrower is one of Australia’s greatest literary icons, and the least celebrated. In her latest collection of short stories, she proves herself to be a master of the form - there are few living writers who quite so skilfully provide beautiful worlds in such small bites. There is a darkness and a cruelty to her character insights that are hilariously and deeply recognisable.
In High Places by Fiona McFarlane Another Aussie, this time at the beginning of her career. McFarlane received well-deserved praise for her novel ‘The Night Guest’. This follow-up short story volume showcases her as a writer of immense skill. Funny, dark and varied, the stories are accessible and fun. We travel around the world, we see ghosts, and meet characters at the precipice of mystery and strangeness in their small, relatable lives.
Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami I am a Murakami fan, having enthusiastically completed his door stopper of a masterwork 1Q84. This collection feels as much like a salve for Murakami as it does the reader: a return to the unique romantic noir of his early work, as opposed to the rich surrealism of his more recent novels. Still, the collection left me with barely a scratch - I don’t think it’s his best work. But it’s hard to ignore in a list such as this, as it’s been so popularly reviewed around the world and has dominated any talk of short story collections in 2017. Best read late at night, listening to Leonard Cohen, drinking something that makes you feel sad, drunk and a little romantic.
Upstream by Mary Oliver Yes, okay, this isn’t a short story collection, but I can’t go past it. Mary Oliver’s occasional breaks from her transcendent poetry into prose are well worth your time. Here, Oliver collects a small bundle of essays on the natural world. The prose emerges like a balm. It breathes. Example:
‘Sometimes the desire to be lost again, as long ago, comes over me like a vapour. With growth into adulthood, responsibilities claimed me, so many heavy coats. I didn’t choose them, I don’t fault them, but it took time to reject them. Now in the spring I kneel, I put my face into the packets of violets, the dampness, the freshness, the sense of ever-ness. Something is wrong, I know it, if I don’t keep my attention on eternity. May I be the tiniest nail in the house of the universe, tiny but useful. May I stay forever in the stream.’