John Lavin looks back on the short story collections that have impressed him in 2012.
At the end of the last year Bloomsbury declared that 2012 would be ‘The Year of the Short Story,’ and while this might not have come to pass in terms of huge commercial breakthrough, there can be little doubt that it proved to be a glorious twelve months for the form. It goes without saying, of course, that the very fact that a major publisher like Bloomsbury is declaring such things is enormously encouraging in itself. Fittingly, the year kicked off in fine style with Bloomsbury’s own Jon McGregor’s wonderfully inventive debut collection, This Isn’t the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You, a book that Dylan Moore described as ‘a virtuoso display of storytelling’. Hot on the heels of that compendium was the delectable ‘Cumbrian Gothic’ of Sarah Hall’s debut collection, The Beautiful Indifference, for which Hall has recently and deservedly been awarded the Portico Prize for Literature.
One of the most satisfying aspects of 2012 was the continuing quality of short fiction coming out of Wales, and with the publication of uniformly excellent new collections from Jon Gower, Nigel Jarrett and Matthew Francis, there can be little doubt that 2012 represented a benchmark year. In Too Cold for Snow Gower’s ebullient prose – a kind of high octane fusion of Nabokov and early Martin Amis – takes us into a variety of scenarios, all of which, while set against a series of wildly differing backdrops, are marked by the extremity of human behaviour alluded to in the collection’s title. Indeed a darker than dark, colder than cold atmosphere pervades much of this deeply enjoyable collection, marked always by a mordant wit combined with a Nabokovian delight at playing literary games.
Nigel Jarrett’s Funderland (like Too Cold For Snow, published by Parthian), meanwhile, contains several masterly examples of the short storyteller’s art, including the magnificent Rhys Davies prize winner, ‘Mrs Kuroda on Penyfan’, as well as the disquieting title story, which revolves around a romance grown out of the ashes of a fairground disaster. Jarrett writes in a lucid, at times almost musical style, and has an ingrained gift for pulling the rug out from underneath his readers’ feet.
Singing a Man to Death (Cinnamon Press), the debut collection from renowned poet Matthew Francis (Mandervile, Whereabouts) invites us into an allusive, Borgesian world familiar to admirers of his poetry. The architecture of the stories is perfectly constructed and the prose itself has a lovely minimalism that also recalls Carver or Hemingway. Francis, however, is far from slavishly devoted to the realist style and these playful and cunningly conceived pieces just as readily recall the invention of Borges or the multi-layered poetry of Paul Muldoon.
Mother America (New Island), the latest collection from Nuala Ní Chonchúir, confirms her as one of Ireland’s brightest new talents. Ní Chonchúir writes very much in the tradition of great Irish short story writers like Sean O’ Faolin, Frank O’Connor and, of course, the Joyce of Dubliners. Her stories are marked by the precision of her writing and the cumulative, intensely poetical rewards this fastidiousness reaps. Mother America is a bold, thematically-linked collection, often concerned with the relationship between mothers and sons. Over the last decade or so Ní Chonchúir has written several very impressive collections but it seems to me to be this one which announces her as a major new voice on the literary stage.
The year ended with a brand new collection – her thirteenth – from Alice Munro, the writer who, alongside William Trevor, must surely be the greatest living exponent of the form. It is a cliché to say that her output seems to keep getting better with age but when you consider that this latest collection, Dear Life (Chatto & Windus), easily ranks among her very best and that Munro is now eighty-two years old, it is hard not to marvel and concur. Part of her genius does stem from her understanding of time and the effect that it has on her characters. There are no creaking plot devices or unsightly glimpses of structure in her works but a sense of time moving organically. These stories don’t so much have twists or epiphanies as other stories do, but seem, rather, to suddenly alter the way our own lives do, with a bewildering logic over which we have little or no control.