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There’s an art to ending a short story. A good finish leaves you feeling it was there all along, its signature running through everything like the words in a stick of rock. In TheBest British Short Stories 2011, editor Nicholas Royal emphasises how important a story’s ending is to him when picking out the best the form has to offer: “It may be an epiphany, or a change of heart, or pace or tone; a twist, perhaps, a revelation that calls into question everything that came before. It could be anything, but there’s got to be something.” And in this collection, Royal has selected a varied bunch of endings.
The stand-out stories in the collection include two by Hilary Mantel, the only author to make it in twice, and both stunning. It’s perhaps interesting that Mantel had to split her novel, Wolf Hall, into two, and then into three parts, because she found her story stretching too far for the ending she originally planned. A novel has the capacity to elongate and morph and become stronger as it does so, but the short story has always to keep its ending in sight. If the novel has the potential to be a multi-course meal, the short story is a fortune cookie – small, sealed, its final truth twisted up inside it.
Mantel’s two stories use their final moments very differently. “Winter Break“, about a couple on holiday, the wife coming to terms with her childless marriage, has perhaps the most shocking ending in the collection, a sharp gasp that leaves you wondering how it crept up on you. It’s an image that is likely to stick with you for some time.
The pivotal moment in Mantel’s other story, “Comma” – when two schoolgirls hiding in the shrubbery of a house finally see its strange, invalid occupant wheeled out in a chair to catch the evening sun – occurs midway through the story. Mantel steers clear of the shock ending, and the finish, when it comes, has a more mysterious cadence.
Another devastating finish comes with Alison Moore’s “When the Door Closed, It Was Dark“, about an au pair looking after a child in a foreign country. I read this one in the middle of the night, sitting up with my own non-sleeping baby, and found the end so traumatic that I had to re-read the story to make sure I’d got it right.
Other stories in the collection come to a quieter close. In Sally Vickers’s “Epiphany“, there are no fanfares or rays of light at the final moment of realisation, just the sad knowledge that’s common to all of us at some point or another of the fallibility of our parents. I loved the hushed finish of S J Butler’s “The Swimmer“, about a woman’s encounter with a swan on a river, which is really more of a lingering image than an event. And the final scene in Dai Vaughan’s “Looted“, with its tantalizing promise of transcendence, makes the story. Questions about whether it is preferable to keep a memory sacrosanct rather, or to face its reality, and whether, if we could revisit our past, we would choose to, remain unanswered.
John Burnside’s “Slut’s Hair” has a horrific opening few pages, which will make your teeth ache in sympathy, but turns quickly into something rather more strange and beautiful, as a wife suffering at the hands of her alcoholic and abusive husband finds a strange creature in her kitchen. Its ending is odder, quieter and far sadder than its violent beginning.
Sometimes, the quiet endings feel devastating, even if the event is inconsequential. David Rose’s “Flora“ has perhaps the strongest voice of any character in the collection – an unreliable, unlikeable narrator obsessed with his botanical library, and with the charms of a young female student he woos with milk and biscuits. But at his comeuppance, we find our sympathy hiding in unexpected places.
Leone Ross’s “Love Silk Food” is also told in a voice you can hear in your head. “Mrs Neecy Brown’s husband is falling in love,” the story opens. On a tube train she meets a charming man from Jamaica and shares a brief and intimate journey with him before they go their separate ways. The encounter turns her, if only for a brief moment, into one of the Excitement Girls of whom she so disapproves.
A couple of the choices feel weaker, stories that bring too much attention onto themselves as literature, that are a little too loud and self-referential. I didn’t feel comfortable with the surrealism and self-consciously bombastic tone of Adam Marek’s “Dinner for Dead Alumni”, and failed to be engaged by Lee Rourke’s “Emergency Exit” – the choice of the second person tense makes it an uncomfortable read, which may have been the author’s intent, but still ends up feeling artificial. Philip Langeskov’s “Notes on a Love Story“, with its complex footnotes and a narrator who writes a story about a relationship that comes true, causing the end of the relationship, which he then writes a story about, which seems to be this story… feels very clever, but its cleverness doesn’t scratch far beneath a seemingly “literary” surface.
In “So Much Time in a Life”, Heather Leach discomfits her reader by creating and uncreating characters as she goes along. Leach’s narrator (who is perhaps Leach – she introduces herself into the story at one point) announces that “Fiction is an evasion…” It’s skillfully written and the conceit is powerful (erasing a character feels as shocking as a death), but the story as a whole left me feeling rather cheated. I prefer my short stories to evade nothing, to look their subject straight in the eye without flinching, rather than hiding behind their status as stories.
The works that will hopefully still be popping up in collections in a decade or a century are unlikely to be those in which the reader is forced to guess at a clever setting or conceit, with the story offering up little but that cleverness. The stories that will last will be those that end with a crunch, whose truth is hidden in plain view.
First published 3 May 2011 by Salt Publishing. Available in paperback and ebook.