Another satisfying read clocked up: The Best British Short Stories 2012, edited by that indefatigable writers’ champion Nicholas Royle and published by Salt Publishing, the indie publishing sensation du jour (and for plus des années encore, I hope). I read the collection over several weeks, on the occasional tube journey, or late evenings before bed, and found almost every story deserving of space to be savoured and digested. I only skipped one (the guilt, the guilt…). The collection is bookended, appropriately, with stories where a library plays a central role. There’s a lovely lyrical lilt to the opening story, I Arrive First, by Emma Jane Unsworth. Robert Shearman follows, with the fabulously titled The Dark Space in the House in the House in the Garden at the Centre of the World, a story that begins in high comic vein – God as a foul-mouthed, arbitrary yet benevolent tyrant – and builds to a surprisingly poignant climax. Joel Lane’s contribution, Those Who Remember, is bleak and brutal and compelling, as only he can do. To Brixton Beach by Stella Duffy is a wonderful, kaleidoscopic paean to inner city swimming, the rhythm of her prose as hypnotic as the laps Charlie swims.
Then there is The Room Beyond by Ramsey Campbell. Even though I knew what was being done to me – the funereal imagery, the lugubriuos waiter, the telephone ‘dead as a bone’ – I read with a racing heart and almost shielding my eyes from the words; and had to immediately read the next story, iAnna by Will Self, so as not to fall asleep with the last chilling image of Campbell’s story uppermost in my mind. And Self’s story did the trick: poking fun at the iGeneration in his characteristic mordant style, and with many laugh out loud turns of phrase. We Wave and Call is, shamefully, the first Jon McGregor story I’ve read and it left a deep impression, the writing subtle and deftly weighted. I’ll be reading more.
At the book’s launch in June, I was particularly taken by the extract Alison MacLeod read from her story The Heart of Denis Noble. The story as a whole more than lives up to that taster, encompassing the sweep of an entire life in just over 25 pages. It’s about (if you’ll pardon that vulgarity) the intricacies of the human heart, both literal and figurative, and the scientific details are threaded into the story with lightness and wonder. For me, this is the top story in a collection of many gems. Stories that linger long after the first reading, and many that demand to be read again.