My books of the year, 2020 – part 3, short stories

As if you weren’t fed-up of seeing books-of-the-year lists by now, here I am, back again with another instalment of my own! But before we get to the books themselves, a little explanation… My original intention, with these annual round-ups, had been to post two pieces – the first on my favourite novellas and non-fiction from a year of reading and the second on my favourite novels. Nevertheless, as I was looking back at my choices earlier this week, I noticed that I had neglected to include any short stories in my final lists. Not because they weren’t good enough to make the cut – I read some truly excellent collections in 2020 – but for some reason they’d been squeezed out, mostly by other, more prominent books.

So, in an effort to redress the balance, here are my favourite short story collections from a year of reading – all highly recommended indeed. While a couple of these collections are relatively recent publications or reissues, the vast majority of the stories themselves hail from the mid-20th-century – a pattern that reflects my general reading preferences. A longing perhaps for a simpler, less manic world, despite many of the difficulties encountered by women in those less enlightened times.

As ever, I’ve summarised each book below, but you can read the full reviews by clicking on the appropriate links. Hopefully, you’ll find something of interest in the mix.

Dark Tales by Shirley Jackson

A collection of seventeen of Jackson’s stories, several of which first appeared in The New Yorker, McSweeney’s and other publications in the 1960s. As the title suggests, the tales themselves are rather creepy and unnerving, illuminating the sense of darkness that lurks beneath the veneer of suburban society. Confinement and entrapment are recurring themes, from the explicit physical state of being trapped in a room to the more subtle psychological sense of being constrained within the limits of domesticity. In some respects, Jackson was highlighting the relatively limited roles woman were allowed to play in society at the time – wife, mother, homemaker and supporter, with precious little opportunity for personal fulfilment. An excellent selection of stories with a serious message.

After Rain by William Trevor

Once again, William Trevor proves himself to be an incredibly astute chronicler of human nature. Here we have stories of bittersweet regrets and missed opportunities, of the acceptance of life’s disappointments and duties, of crushed hopes and dashed dreams. Moreover, Trevor writes brilliantly about the sense of duty or stigma that guides his protagonists’ lives. Like much of the best short fiction, these pieces leave enough space for the reader to bring their own reflections to bear on the narratives, opening up the possibilities beyond the words on the page. What is omitted or left unsaid is just as important as what is explicitly expressed. A superb collection of stories, possibly up there with Eleven Kinds of Loneliness as an all-time favourite.

The Breaking Point by Daphne du Maurier

A characteristically unsettling collection of eight stories, many of which blur the lines between the real and the imaginary. They’re wonderfully creepy, often tapping into our deepest fears and suspicions, our latent sources of restlessness and anxiety. As the title suggests, each story pivots on a moment of crisis in an individual’s life, a time when the protagonist’s emotions are stretched to the extreme. Whether that person snaps or survives remains the critical question, something du Maurier leaves for the reader to ponder and decide. She also excels at building atmosphere and tension, a style that seems particularly well suited to the short story form.

The Cost of Living: Early and Uncollected Stories by Mavis Gallant

In short, these stories are excellent. The very best of them feel like novels in miniature; the kind of tales where everything is compressed, only for the narratives to expand in the reader’s mind on further reflection. Several of Gallant’s protagonists – typically women – seem lost; cast adrift and unmoored in the vast sea of uncertainty that is life. Here we have stories of terrible mothers and self-absorbed fathers, of isolated wives and bewildered husbands, of smart, self-reliant children who must learn to take care of themselves. Central themes include the failings of motherhood, the heartache of adolescence, the emptiness of false happiness and domesticity, and ultimately, a sense of isolation and abandonment. These are marvellous stories, beautifully observed. I loved them.

Wave Me Goodbye, Stories of the Second World War

A fascinating anthology of stories by women writers, most of whom were writing during the Second World War (or the years immediately following its end). When viewed as a whole, this collection offers a rich tapestry depicting the different facets of women’s lives during this period – from stoic mother and caregiver, to headstrong Land Girl or factory worker, to intrepid journalist or correspondent. We see individuals anxiously awaiting the return of loved ones; women grieving for lives that have been lost, and marriages that have faded or turned sour. The mood and atmosphere on the Home Front are vividly conveyed, through stories of nights in the air raid shelters and the emotional impact of the Blitz. Plus, there are glimpses of Europe too, from the ravages of war-torn France to the tensions in Romania as the conflict edges ever closer. Includes pieces by Jean Rhys, Elizabeth Taylor, Olivia Manning, Barbara Pym and many more.

The Garden Party by Katherine Mansfield

What to say about this collection of fifteen of Mansfield’s short stories, other than to highlight its brilliance? A much-anticipated garden party is tainted by news of a fatal accident, for one member of the family at least; a man longs to be alone with his wife following her return from a trip, only for their closeness to be disturbed by the shadow of a stranger; a lady’s maid remains devoted to her employer, forsaking the offer of marriage for a life in service. These are just a few of the scenarios Mansfield explores with great insight and perceptiveness. Moreover, there is a beautiful fluidity of emotion in these stories, as they move seamlessly from happiness and gaiety to sadness and loneliness in the blink of an eye.

Saturday Lunch at the Brownings by Penelope Mortimer

Mortimer drew on some of her own experiences for this collection of sharply unnerving stories of motherhood, marriage and family relation – many of which uncover the horrors that lie beneath the veneer of domestic life. There are similarities with the Shirley Jackson and the Daphne du Maurier, particularly in the opening story, The Skylight, where much of the horror in this chillingly tense tale stems from the imagination. There is a strong sense of foreboding in many of these stories, a feeling that flashes of rage, violence or cruelty may erupt at any moment. Nevertheless, Mortimer also has a sharp eye for humour, something that comes through quite strongly. In summary, these are pitch-perfect vignettes, subverting traditional images of marriage and motherhood with a spiky precision.

So that’s it from me for 2020. I wish you all the very best for 2021, wherever you happen to be.

38 thoughts on “My books of the year, 2020 – part 3, short stories

  1. MarinaSofia

    Well, I for one am so glad you did a separate post with short stories. I used to read them a lot in my 20s but seem to have neglected them in recent years in favour of novels. As you might imagine, I have everything Shirley Jackson ever wrote and agree with you that she captures that feeling of confinement particularly well. The Mavis Galkant sounds superb. And yes, Katherine Mansfield had such poise and style in her writing that even Virginia Woolf was envious…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m woefully under-read when it comes to Katherine Mansfield, but The Garden Party collection was a real treat. Funnily enough, I actually ended up buying it because a customer had ordered it from the shop, and the Penguin English Library edition was too beautiful to resist!

      Reply
  2. kaggsysbookishramblings

    A really interesting selection, Jacqui. I read a reasonable amount of short stories, and I do love the form, though I tend to often fall back onto crime classic collections where the authors are mixed. Having said that, the Sylvia Townsend Warner collection I read this year was exceptional. Anyway, let’s hope for a calm and uneventful 2021!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, yes! I’m very keen to read that SWT collection, especially given your enthusiastic review. It’s possible that one or two of those stories may have been part of the Wave Me Goodbye collection, too. I have a vague recollection of checking with you at the time!

      Reply
  3. Jay

    Glad to see After Rain on you list. One of my all time favorite collections! Also Shirley Jackson. I’ve been working my way through “Just an Ordinary Day: The Uncollected Stories of Shirley Jackson” this year. A few gems in there as well. Happy reading in 2021!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, fantastic! Yes, the Trevor was wonderful, top quality all the way through. And how lovely to hear that you’re reading your way through Shirley Jackson – I’d definitely like to experience more of her stories next year.

      Reply
  4. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead

    Like many bookish types, my attention span has been rather fragmented this year, which has caused me to focus more on shorter works than I normally would have. Although I’m still struggling to love the short story format, I’ve become increasingly open to its possibilities and I’ve become downright fond of novellas at this point!
    Like you, I loved Trevor’s After Rain, which I read shortly after it was published (I was on a real William Trevor roll at the time). My favorite story from the collection was that of the saintly vision appearing to the Protestant kid, who was shunned by both his family and the Catholic population when he shared the news (I think the title was “Lost Ground”). It was an incredibly powerful work and made me think that Trevor might be the greatest short story writer ever. It also sparked a good bit of research into the saint that the story used to deliver the kid’s vision; the “facts” associated with her life perfectly reinforced the elements of Trevor’s story and really added a dimension to it.
    I, too, read a du Maurier collection this year, albeit a different one from yours (mine included The Birds and Don’t Look Now). As you observed, she’s so very, very good at building atmosphere and tension.
    I’ve yet to try Mavis Gallant (have a couple of her collections moldering on the shelves) & it’s been so long since I’ve read Katherine Mansfield it really doesn’t count. And then, there’s Shirley! I’ve read The Lottery, of course, and a few others; the collection you highlight sounds like an ideal way to explore more of her shorter fiction.
    Have you read any stories by the USA’s very own Flannery O’Connor? She’s a very interesting short story writer, heavy on Southern Gothic but with a penetrating view of human nature and a deeply ironic sense of humor. Her work tends to stick in the mind (I bored Mr. Janakay very much the other day, recounting the plot of “A Good Man Is Hard To Find”!) And then there’s always Alice Munroe . . . what’s that thing about so many books?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, you’re right about that William Trevor story, Lost Ground. Such a powerful, heartbreaking piece – a standout story in a superb collection, which is saying something given the quality of WT’s work. I think it highlights the sheer strength of feeling that some people attach to religion, a belief or set of principles that can trump family ties and close friendships alike…

      Du Maurier’s great, isn’t she? I think you’d find The Breaking Point very interesting, particularly given the overarching theme. As for Mavis Gallant, she probably been one of the *discoveries* of the year for me. A couple of other readers had been encouraging me to try her for ages, and guess what? They were right!

      And no, I haven’t read any Flannery O’ Connor…but she’s on my list to try at some point, possibly as an interesting contrast to Shirley Jackson. The ironic streak of humour sounds rather appealing…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you! That’s lovely to hear. I often have a collection of stories on the go as they’re often easier to read than a novel, especially when time is tight.

      Reply
  5. Julé Cunningham

    I’ve already mentioned how much I love William Trevor’s work, but this post is a reminder to explore more of du Maurier’s short stories and Shirley Jackson’s. I’d also like to go back to Katherine Mansfield’s excellent stories and her diary. I do hope the coming year brings easier and kinder times.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you, Julé . I hope 2021 is kind to you, too – goodness knows, we all need it…

      The Mansfield was such a treat, almost like being transported back to a time when life was simpler and less complex than it is for many of us today. And yet, the underlying feelings and emotions remain so very relevant. I would definitely recommend another visit!

      Reply
  6. heavenali

    So glad you enjoyed Wave me Goodbye so much, such a lovely collection of stories. Lots of those collections really appeal to me, I think we like the same kinds of short stories. Thankfully I have Saturday Lunch with the Brownings on my tbr. You remind me again, that I want to try Mavis Gallant one day.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, that Virago anthology is terrific. Such a diverse range of approaches and styles across the different stories, in spite of the common underlying theme. I recall the Lehmann being a standout (Miss Anstruther’s Letters is the name of the piece). I don’t think I’ll ever forget the image of her scrabbling around in the debris, searching for fragments of those precious letters. Such a powerful representation of loss — not just the letters but a part of life itself.

      Reply
  7. Liz Dexter

    An excellent collection. I have Wave me Goodbye on my radar although I don’t read many short stories. I do have the Second Persephone Book of them coming up on the TBR, too, though, and that’s sure to be a good one. Happy New Year!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, thanks for reminding me about those Persephone anthologies! They sound well worth investigating, particularly as I enjoyed the Virago so much. Happy New Year to you too, Liz – I hope it’s a good one.

      Reply
  8. 1streading

    I really don’t think I read many short stories last year, something I must remedy. Of the ones you mention, I think its Katherine Mansfield I most want to read even though I have read some of her work before. I will aim to have a best short story collection for next year!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s hard to go wrong with Mansfield, I’m sure! What struck me most about stories in The Garden Party was how progressive they felt, particularly in terms of some of the emotions expressed. I guess it made me wonder how they’d been received at the time…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you! It feels as if I read more short story collections than usual in 2020 as they just seemed to fit with other constraints — concertation span, time to read etc. The William Trevor was especially good, definitely a collection you’d like if you don’t have it already.

      Reply
  9. Grier

    I share your enthusiasm for Trevor, an old favorite, and Mansfield, which I read for the first time in 2020. I thought Mortimer’s Daddy’s Gone a-Hunting was superb but haven’t read her short stories yet so thank you for suggesting them. I also loved reading about life during World War II in Wave Me Goodbye. I read 15 short story collections last year and hope to read more this year. I highly recommend Alice Munro’s brilliant collections.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, William Trevor is wonderful. Such a sensitive writer with a deep understanding of human nature, complete with all its flaws and imperfections. Like you, I’m fairly new to Katherine Mansfield and hope to read more of her later this year. Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting is one my list for the future, especially as it’s available in a Persephone – I do love the design of their books. Thanks also for the recommendation of Alice Munro in relation to short stories. I have a collection of her pieces somewhere which I really ought to dig out…

      Reply
  10. buriedinprint

    What a treat to have a separate “shelf” of favourites for your short stories. I think it’s only fair: the novels (admittedly, my first fictional love too) too often overshadow them! We’ve got lots of shared favourites. I’m looking forward to seeing which stories you read in 2021!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Lovely! I think I’m going to try to read short story collections a little differently this year, dipping in and out of them over longer periods of time than just a couple of weeks. Otherwise, there’s a danger that all the stories begin to merge into one, even with other reads in between.

      Reply
  11. Claire 'Word by Word'

    I don’t think I read any short story collections in 2020,though I did read 4 mini books from Eastern Europe, classic short stories, that I won’t mention (lent to me because I read translations, I should have known better) but I have read one in 2021, Edwidge Danticat’s Everything Inside which I enjoyed, an author that easily crosses genre from essay, memoir, novel and short story. It is impressive indeed to have a list of favourite collections of short stories!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Everything Inside sounds excellent. I’ll have to look it up. It’s interesting to hear you say that Danticat is writer who can transition between different forms fairly seamlessly. He’s not someone I’ve come across before, but that sense of fluidity in his writing very much appeals…

      Reply
      1. Claire 'Word by Word'

        She’s a Haitian author, but moved to America, so there’s a double sense to the writing and storytelling that come from the entwining of both cultures. She wrote a wonderful and unusual memoir Brother, I’m Dying in which she talls the story of brothers, her father and her Uncle, one who stayed in Haiti and the other (her father) bringing his family to America. The story belongs to the two brothers, but told by this daughter, who sees them both as her fathers. It’s a wonderful compassionate memoir, where she virtually removes herself, almost like a tribute – a little like Laura Cumming focusing her memoir on her mother, bringing her centre stage.

        I have a collection of her essays intriguingly entitled Create Dangerously, which I’ve yet to read. Her fiction is what she is mostly known for though, Breath, Eyes, Memory, I’ve read.

        Reply

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