Book review: The Story

The Story ed by Victoria Hislop 11-1-14I read this book over a number of weeks, on my Kindle, without really appreciating just how much reading was involved for 100 stories. It’s not like holding a hefty book. But I enjoyed every single one of them. Some of the authors were well-known, others were new to me. Some made me laugh out loud (I’m thinking of Dorothy Parker here), others stopped my breath with sadness. I discovered authors I want to explore further: one of the reasons I have always loved short stories.

The short story form is fascinating. As a writer, I find the form freeing, an opportunity to try something different, to focus tightly on a theme or character that has caught my interest, to play with structure, genre, voice. As a reader I am very demanding, like anthology editor Victoria Hislop I want to be instantly grabbed by a story. “Readers are allowed to be impatient with short stories,” she writes. “My own patience limit for a novel which I am not hugely enjoying may be three or four chapters. If it has not engaged me by then, it has lost me and is returned to the library or taken to a charity shop. With a short story, three or four pages are the maximum I allow (sometimes they are only five or six pages long in any case). A short story can entice us in without preamble or background information, and for that reason it had no excuse. It must not bore us even for a second.”

So, my favourite stories? Hislop has divided her selection into three sections so I have chosen three from each.

Jeanette Winterson’s ‘Atlantic Crossing’ – the gentle story of love and longing at a distance. My favourite story of all, I think.

Dorothy Parker’s ‘A Telephone Call’ – the stream of consciousness dialogue of waiting for a telephone call is an everywoman story.

‘The Artist’ by Maggie Gee is about Emma, an unfulfilled wife who employs an East European, Boris, as an odd-job man/builder. He says he is an artist, she doesn’t believe him.

‘The First Year of My Life’ by Muriel Spark. It starts, “I was born on the first day of the second month of the last year of the First World War, a Friday.” An account of war seen through the innocent but at the same time all-knowing eyes of an infant.

‘The Pill Box‘ by Penelope Lively is about the flexibility of imagination. A male teacher and writer is haunted by the past, remembering, wondering how the world would be now if things had happened differently when he was young.

‘The Merry Widow’ by Margaret Drabble tells the story of Elsa Palmer who, after the death of her husband Philip, goes on the summer holiday they had planned together. Grief overcomes her, but in an unconventional way.

‘G-String’ by Nicola Barker is about the triumph of the modern knicker. This made me laugh out loud.

‘Betty’ is the woman who captivates the teenage narrator of Margaret Atwood’s tale. “From time to time I would like to have Betty back, if only for an hour’s conversation.”

‘A Society’ by Virginia Woolf, about a group of young women on the verge of the Great War who make themselves into a “society for asking questions. One of us was to visit a man-of-war; another was to hide herself in a scholar’s study; another was to attend a meeting of business men; while all wee to read books, look at pictures, go to concerts, keep our eyes open on the streets, and ask questions perpetually.”
‘The Story: Love, Loss & the Lives of Women’ ed. by Victoria Hislop [pub by Head of Zeus]

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