John Lavin looks back on 2014 to find a stellar year for the short story collection.
2014 was a particularly strong year for the Welsh short story, one that saw Francesca Rhydderch (‘The Taxidermist’s Daughter’) and Tessa Hadley (‘Bad Dreams’) both shortlisted for the BBC Short Story of the Year Award, while Tyler Keevil was awarded Canada’s prestigious Journey Prize for ‘Sealskin’. It was also a year that was bookended by two collections destined to be regarded as Welsh classics: Dai Smith’s anthology Story (Parthian/ Library of Wales) and Carys Davies’ remarkable The Redemption of Galen Pike (Salt).
Story is an anthology split over two volumes that brings together more than seventy Welsh short stories. The first volume collects an unarguable array of classic pieces, taking in all the usual suspects from Dylan Thomas’ ‘Just Like Little Dogs’ to Rhys Davies’ ‘Boy With A Trumpet’, while taking care to throw in a few surprises along the way. The second volume is a bold and brilliant affair teeming with evidence of the current rude health of Welsh literature, featuring such contemporary marvels as Jon Gower’s ‘Bunting’, Rachel Trezise’s ‘Fresh Apples’ and Jo Mazelis’ ‘Too Perfect’. Smith cleverly draws attention to the way that these stories mirror changes in Welsh society and also – because it is a very comprehensive collection – to the remarkable depth of quality in the Welsh short story tradition. It is a depth that is perhaps not as widely recognised outside of Wales as it might be and as such this is a book to prize and to champion.
A number of the stories collected in Carys Davies’ The Redemption of Galen Pike have either won or been shortlisted for prizes including the V.S. Pritchett Memorial Prize and the Sunday Times Short Story of the Year Award. Upon reading this slim, densely packed volume it is easy to see why. Take the opening story, ‘The Quiet’, in which a gnarled, middle-aged man strips to the waist while a young, newly married woman – a person that is already frightened of him – has her back to him. I don’t want to give away too much of what happens next but suffice it to say that the two discover that they have more in common than either would have thought. Indeed the unexpected is a hallmark of Davies’ style – which is not at all to suggest that this is gone about in a gratuitous or fantastical fashion. On the contrary, the unexpected twists and turns of Davies’ stories always feel completely likely – as though she has travelled far further inside the inner lives of her characters than most authors would think necessary. Or perhaps would even know how to get to. Davies plumbs these depths time and time again, returning to the surface with hard won, innermost truths.
Another notable collection this year is Second-Hand Rain (Parthian), the debut work of the young Swansea writer Georgia Carys Williams. An immensely varied and satisfying collection, what appeals and perhaps surprises most about this volume is Carys Williams’ innate grasp of human psychology, as well as her sure touch in terms of tone and modulation. An unashamedly poetic fiction writer, in stories such as ‘Beautifully Greek’ and the Wales Arts Review-commissioned ‘Swansea Malady’, Carys Williams demonstrates an ability to surprise her readers simply by the subtle nuances of her observations.
Leaving Wales but staying in the realm of the short story, 2014 was notable for the publication of several extraordinarily high quality Irish short story collections, not least Colin Barrett’s instant classic Young Skins (The Stinging Fly/ Jonathan Cape); a book which takes us into the self-contained fictional universe of Glanbeigh. Tellingly, like Joyce and O’Conner before him, Barrett had aspired to poetry when younger but thought himself not strong enough in that medium. And like those two writers, each of whom clearly had a strong desire to write poetry, Barrett sprinkles these gritty, almost Shane Meadows-ian portraits of Irish life with often surprising poetic flights, not least in the shape of the ‘young skins’ refrain that weaves through the book and gives it its title. You can read my review from earlier in the year here.
Órfhlaith Foyle’s Clemency Browne Dreams of Gin (Arlen House) meanwhile, confirms what we at Wales Arts Review have known for some time: that Foyle is no longer simply a name to watch, she is quite simply one of the most original and exciting writers working today. The stories in Clemency Browne somewhat recall First Love, Last Rites-era Ian McEwan in their intensity and in their desire to enter into the lives of often, shall we say, difficult characters. The ghost of Angela Carter also never feels far away – albeit more stylistically than thematically – and these stories certainly recall a time when writers were perhaps willing to transgress stereotypes and social norms rather more than they are wont to today. A story like ‘Alice Grows Up’, for instance, which involves a schoolgirl having an affair with a teacher who likes to have sex with her at the site of old crimes scenes, is a perfect example of what the short story can – and should – do. Shocking as the subject material is, the writing is necessary rather than sensationalist, while the piece flowers at the end like the beginning of a new poem. Foyle’s stories are like long, sustained electric shocks: they won’t let you go until they’ve made pretty damn sure they’ve changed you.
Finally, Thomas Morris’ Dubliners 100 (Tramp) anthology is yet another example of the almost ludicrous brilliance that meets you at every corner of the contemporary Irish short story community. Eimear McBride, John Boyne, Belinda McKeon and Oona Frawley are just a few of the star names ‘covering’ – as Morris would have it – what is without doubt the set text of the short story cannon. It seems to me that Morris’ use of the word ‘cover’ is pivotal to the success of this volume. The idea was born out of hearing a busker play ‘Hallelujah’ while out walking along Grafton Street – somewhere, of course, that the spirit of Joyce is in any case never far way from – and the subsequent musings this inspired on the multifarious versions of the Cohen classic that have been performed over the years. Why not treat Joyce like this, instead of with the all too familiar academic reverence, which (as important as Joyce studies frequently are) can very often rob the first time reader – especially the first time student reader – of the plain enjoyable brilliance of the stories? The writers in Dubliners 100 have responded accordingly, treating Joyce’s work with a winning disregard for anything besides a belief in their own innate brilliance.
Appropriately enough the highlight of the collection is by a new writer, Sam Coll, whose version of ‘Grace’ recast as the story of a ligger on the Dublin literary scene manages to be both very funny and deeply poignant. It also manages to be entirely original while at the same time carrying the central seed of Joyce’s ‘Grace’ right through from beginning to epiphany. No easy achievement and Coll, who has just made his UK debut with an equally brilliant story in Granta, is undoubtedly a name to look out for in the New Year.