Short Fiction Recs, 14/10/2020
Updated: Nov 8, 2020
This week's collection of 6 short reviews is again a mixture of new and older work, with one of them even being first published as far back as May 2001 - which at the moment seems an incredibly distant, almost halcyon time... Anyhow, there are new, award-winning, and long-established writers here, and I hope you find something that catches your eye.
Lump Sum Love (Aliya Whiteley, Daily Science Fiction) - A short one to start with, but a potent one, too. Whiteley has written some of the finest science fiction I’ve read in recent years, from The Arrival of Missives to The Loosening Skin, and her skill with layered and manipulative first person narration is on full display here. There’s no point saying too much, given that the whole thing is shorter than 500 words, but it takes the idea of love as sacrifice in a brilliant direction. Whiteley’s latest novel, Greensmith, was just released on Monday, from the always excellent Unsung Stories. I haven’t had chance to read it yet, but am looking forward to doing so, and will hopefully get a review up when I have.
Hearts in the Hard Ground (G.V. Anderson, Tor.com) - As we get nearer and nearer to Halloween 2020 (as if the rest of the year hasn’t scared us enough…), here’s a splendid haunted house tale to get you in the mood. And while the set-up - Fiona buys an old property with the money bequeathed to her by her Mum, in a bid to reinvent herself - might sound formulaic, the execution is anything but. This much is clear from the revenant seagull in paragraph three. In prose that finds a melancholy, relatable voice, Anderson reveals the home’s other spectres in line with Fiona’s own worries and secrets, at a wonderfully poignant slow-burning pace. There’s a deep and hard-earned wisdom here, too, about the strength it can take to come to terms with one’s guilt, and yet still let oneself be forgiven and loved.
Burrowing (Alberto Fernández Carbajal, Litro) - This is an enigmatic, engrossing little tale, which follows a woman on an urgent trek along part of the Pennine Way, in search of buried secrets. Being familiar with this landscape myself, I was impressed by how nimbly and vividly the author evokes it, while never allowing such description to get in the way of either the character’s development or her personal quest.
I should perhaps say at this point that while I do know Alberto, this is the first of his stories I’ve had the pleasure to read - and I’m very much hoping he has more published soon! In addition to his short fiction, he is also a lecturer at Roehampton University, and his monograph Queer Muslim Diasporas in Contemporary Literature and Film was published last year.
More Than Trinkets (Ramez Yoakeim, Translunar Travelers Lounge, Issue 3) - This is a story that proves that just because a publication is shaped around fun, playful speculative fiction, it doesn’t mean work they feature will shy away from heavier themes. In this case, Yoakeim presents a protagonist, Ari, coming to terms with their non-binary nature, and the ways in which this impacts both their career in the space-Navy to which they’re indentured, and more crucially their relationship with their best, and possibly only, friend. Despite dealing with that friend’s frustrated attempts to turn things more romantic, against Ari’s wishes, the narrative never gets clouded by angst. Instead, it retains an unexpected lightness, as it hints at a future of understanding and hope.
The Grotesques (Sarah Hall, Winner of the BBC National Short Story Award 2020) - As I reviewed one of the other shortlisted stories last week, it only made sense that I tackle the winner today. And while the notion of ascribing a definitive order to works in a field as subjective as prose fiction is a complex and often contentious one, this did indeed strike me as extremely well-written, and very much worthy of the acclaim it’s received. At its core (as with Anderson’s story) is the legacy of a daughter’s relationship with her mother, and it can be seen in a way as another meditation on familial hauntings. Again, however, it is set apart from any expectations that might come with that premise through the strength of Hall’s descriptive gifts (‘reefs of eczema’ is an early example), and the subtlety and empathy with which the daughter, Dilly’s, state of mind is explored.
This review relates to the audio version, brought to life by Lydia Wilson, but if you’d prefer the prose you can find it in the official BBC NSSA Shortlist anthology from Comma Press. Incidentally, Hall’s victory in the Awards this year makes her the first writer to win it twice. Though she is clearly an exceptionally talented and prolific writer, this is the first story of hers that I’ve read - a situation I aim to remedy soon.
The Hunter’s Wife (Anthony Doerr, The Atlantic, May 2001 / The Shell Collector, Scribner) - I had heard of Doerr’s work in passing, but never sought any out until I unexpectedly discovered his book of short stories, The Shell Collector, while searching for information about a novel of the same name. A chance encounter, but one I’m increasingly grateful for, as I work my way through its contents. This story is a particular stand-out, due to its lyrical, piercing imagery, and how well it lives up to its unusual premise. As the title suggests, it charts the relationship between a hunter and his wife, which begins, fittingly enough, with another chance encounter. And yet the ways in which their marriage impacts on their relative skills and ambitions, leading to an unexpected flourishing in one and a stifling in the other, is the real meat of the narrative, and it’s a quiet joy to observe it and follow it through to its tender, ambiguous, rich resolution. Note: My review relates to the version in The Shell Collector, but I don’t believe there are many differences between that and the link I’ve provided to its original publication in The Atlantic. Nonetheless, it is pretty lengthy (c.9,300 words), so if you don't enjoy reading on-screen for long periods, I would heartily recommend getting hold of the book, ideally from your favourite independent bookshop, or even your local library. Heck, get a copy anyway - I doubt you'll regret it. (Disclosure: If you buy books through links on this page, I may earn a commission from Bookshop.org, whose fees also support independent bookshops.)