Who doesn’t like an anthology?
I have a penchant for themed anthologies mostly, as I sometimes find anthologies which collate a load of stories together seem a little disjointed, choking the flow to other stories, jarring and hampering my enjoyment (ever so slightly may I add). But what we have here in the Best British Short Stories 2019 by Salt is something that unifies these many randomly chosen stories; that unifying element is a sense of greatness, of storytellers conjuring breathtaking stories that are timeless and limitless in their scope and reach.
This sense of greatness is one of the reasons I always pick up a copy of Salt’s best of collections, but credit should also be given here to the editor Nicholas Royle who has done a great job in leading this series of anthologies, and in the 2019 edition he has created an anthology that is dripping with brilliance, it seems to leak from the page, each story lending itself to the others and adding to the overall brilliance on offer.
Royle’s introduction to the latest instalment of this ongoing series is worth the price of the book alone, it’s insightful and a real joy to read and discover additional stories / authors that didn’t quite make it into the book, many of which I’ve gone on to purchase since reading this fabulous introduction. You see Royle is a fountain of knowledge when it comes to the short story form, surrounding himself in thousands of stories on his quest to bring us the very best, and he has developed a keen eye for what makes a short story, a great short story. His exploration into the short story form over the past nine years is enlightening and his detailing that the tide is turning on the genre which many look down their noses at in this introduction makes for some heartwarming, and much needed celebration about the form we love so much, it is very much alive!
So… on with the review. Best British Short Stories 2019 is like a greatest hits tape, scratch that, it’s like a mixed tape (remember those) – all the best stories complied for our pleasure. So, you must forgive me in passing up the opportunity to talk about all of the stories in this collection, as if I did, this review would be a dissertation, so I’ll be looking at a few of the stories in this stellar collection which blew me away; and from there you can make up your own mind. Even better, grab yourselves a copy and find out for yourselves – as I always find that with collections and anthologies there will be stories that other readers prefer, but also by picking up a copy you’ll also be helping to support independent publishing… but on with the show, that’s why your here isn’t it?
Cuts by Stephen Sharp is a fabulous exploration into the mind of a schizophrenic, the structure of the piece is breathtaking, as is the pace that Sharp brings to his writing. Cuts takes the form of a rambling internal monologue, with no distinct pattern or destination, our protagonist thinks and then says whatever pops into his head, reading more like the crazed ramblings of a madman – including conversations with himself, with the television, visions and thoughts, each mingling into the other and creating a broiling cacophony of noise that is deafening but arresting all at the same time. Sharp’s prose is a delight, in a story that is quite clearly erratic, think unreliable narrator. We are treated to what it must be like to suffer from schizophrenia, the constant, inescapable noise and busyness of it all – but Sharp deals with this topic with great care and compassion, meaning it doesn’t come across ham fisted or forced. Cuts is a fine exploration into a mental health condition which many may not be aware of or have encountered in the flesh – helping shed some light on the condition of those that suffer from such an affliction of the mind.
Cluster by Naomi Booth is a wonderfully detailed story about a mother and her newborn, but it’s not all baby grows and delight as Booth blends dramatic tension and dark undertones to what is one of the standout stories of the collected works on show. In essence it is a story about a mother who is nursing her newborn baby, cluster feeding they call it, when the mother is pretty much guided by the baby in its need for feeding (bunching feeds together so they can go longer without food – enabling sleep… who are they trying to kid!), so the milk bar is open at nighttime and will be closing when baby has had enough. This tool of the cluster feed, helps to give structure to the piece, meaning that each night, in the cold light of the moon, both mother and child are awake, in the dark and alone, albeit her husband is there, he is just absent, in the land of dreams, whilst mother and child engage in their bonding and survival and in turn listen to the telltale signs of the night drawing in around them and in doing so brings out the very things that like the dark, that like to go unseen. Cluster is dark and brooding, and a very brilliant read; Booth has created a tremendously deep, touching and poignant tale, but also I’m enraptured by her ability – in that for such a short piece of fiction, she’s built a real frenetic urgency that drags you kicking and screaming in its undertow. Another masterful outing from Naomi Booth and on this form, I can’t wait to see what her singled authored collection will be like!
Smack by Julia Armfield is a very delightfully crafted piece of fiction, it’s set by the coast, and focuses on our protagonist as she comes to terms with her divorce. She’s come for one last time, but how long she intends to stay is anyones guess, she’s barricaded herself into the beach house, her food supply is running out and the solicitor keeps returning to the door – demanding her to leave at once. Smack is a very insular story, focusing on the fallout and breakdown of a marriage – the personal moments of packing away of items and memories, all of which reveal a life shared but not entwined in a love for one another. It’s a life that has now been reduced to items, things, and trinkets. The prose that Armfield deploys has an intrinsic beauty, arrestingly pure and at points its lyricism seemed to sing from the page, her carefully and considered words lending themselves brilliantly to the drama, location and powerful emotions that are broiling beneath the surface of this masterful story.
‘The jellyfish come with the morning – a great beaching, bodies black on sand. The ocean empties, a thousand dead and dying invertebrates, jungled tentacles and fine, fragile membranes blanketing the shore two miles in each direction. They are translucent, almost spectral, as though the sea has exorcised its ghosts. Drowned in air, they break apart and bleed their interiors. A saturation, leeching down into the earth.’
Badgerface by Lucie McKnight Hardy is another deeply moving and commanding story from a truly exceptional and gifted raconteur. I’m discovering that Hardy has a skill for drawing the reader in, regaling them, teasing them with her exquisite prose, and clever sleight of hand – and once she’s enchanted you, pulled you in like a siren, she wrecks you, leaving you shattered and bruised. To divulge too much about Badgerface will cheapen its effect on the reader, so I will only say that the story builds to a deftly crafted conclusion that is subtly conveyed, giving even greater power to a stunningly crafted masterpiece! In my opinion we are witnessing a true auteur in the making – Hardy’s short story writing has a certain signature to it, where we as a reader feel the full impact of the story within the closing lines – and I for one will never tire of it, or the gift she offers the literary world with her words.
Best British Short Stories 2019 is a dazzling and captivating collection that needs to be read. There are stories that are moving, real, bold and brilliantly ambitious, it is a collection of writers that need to be savoured and celebrated!
Best British Short Stories 2019 is published by Salt and is available here.
Nicholas Royle was born in Manchester in 1963. He is the author of seven novels, including: Counterparts, Saxophone Dreams, and First Novel, and a short story collection, Mortality. He has edited sixteen anthologies, including A Book of Two Halves and Neonlit: Time Out Book of New Writing. He lives between London and Manchester and teaches creative writing at MMU.
Julia Armfield, Elizabeth Baines, Naomi Booth, Kieran Devaney, Vicky Grut, Nigel Humphreys, Sally Jubb, Lucie McKnight Hardy, Robert Mason, Ann Quin, Sam Thompson, Melissa Wan and Ren Watson.
Reviewed by Ross Jeffery
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