Category Archives: Short Stories

To the Volcano by Elleke Boehmer: Stories of longing and loneliness

Cover imageI’d not heard of Elleke Boehmer before To the Volcano turned up, despite the five novels she has under her belt. She’s also the author of an acclaimed biography of Nelson Mandela not to mention editor of the bestselling 2004 edition of Baden-Powell’s Scouting for Boys. I knew about the latter from Waterstone’s Books Quarterly days but had failed to make the connection. Now an Oxford academic, Boehmer was born in South Africa which explains why so many of her stories emanate from the southern hemisphere.

The opening piece sets the tone for much of this collection with a tale of homesickness in which a young African student’s infectious laugh gradually fades away in an unwelcoming ancient British university town. Lise’s dream of visiting Paris, her backpack stuffed with French classics to guide her, is dulled by rain and unwanted attention which sends her thoughts heading for home in ‘South, North’ while ‘Evelina’, one of my favourites, sees a young Argentinian travel guide, due to join her fiancé in New York, lingering in the airport until the last minute, reluctant to board the plane. Closely linked to the yearning for home, ‘Supermarket Love’ is a tale of cultural confusion as a young Afghan Muslim shelf-stacker writes a letter in her head to an Australian agony aunt about her crush on a colleague, knowing she can never send it. ‘Synthetic Orange’ also calls to mind refugees when the gift of a bracelet made from the brightly coloured vests worn by migrants brings back memories of two shocking events for a woman on holiday in Spain.

Many of Boehmer’s stories are about people at a decisive point in their lives, a time to turn backwards or forwards, but several explore ageing a particularly poignant example of which is ‘Paper Planes’ in which an old woman sits in her nursing home bedroom playing with her grandson, or rather watching him play. ‘The Mood I’m In’ takes a rather different view of growing old as a widow, dry-eyed at her previous husbands’ funerals, finds herself in tears at the fourth.

These are insightful, intelligent stories full of characters pursuing their dreams but often meeting with disappointment, unable to make a decisive move, pulled back by a longing for home or an inability to escape their past and often left lonely as a result. An enjoyable collection, written with a quietly perceptive insight.

Myriad Editions: Oxford 9781912408245 177 pages Paperback

Witches Sail in Eggshells by Chloe Turner: A smartly turned out collection

Cover imageI was initially attracted to Chloe Turner’s debut collection by its cover. Such a lovely pared back image and once you’ve read what’s inside, you’ll find it’s entirely relevant, too. Witches Sail in Eggshells comprises seventeen short pieces – some just a couple of pages, others stretching over ten – all as smartly turned out as that jacket.

There’s a ‘be careful what you wish for’ flavour to the opening story, ‘The Hagstone’, in which a pebble brought home by Leda’s sister enlivens her collection with sinister results. It’s hard to say whose behaviour is the worst in the lengthy ‘Piñata’, or perhaps the children are simply taking after their parents at eight-year-old Marlie’s birthday party. Shorter and more taut, ‘Inches Apart’ sees a woman whose marriage has dwindled, wondering if she’ll choose to see the evidence of her partner’s infidelity while in ‘Labour of Love’ – one of my favourites – a gardener finds first joy then surprising comfort in working her vegetable patch.

Many of Turner’s stories are about relationships – with partners, exs and partners of exs, rivals and even old schoolmates – some with disturbing undercurrents. ‘Show Me What You’re Made Of ‘ is a chilling, almost gothic, exploration of domestic violence and coercion while a thread of tension runs through ‘Collecting Her Thoughts on the Prison Steps’ as we wonder how things will end for a woman caught up in a controlling relationship. More cheeringly, a woman is brought face to face with one of her ex’s lovers when their sons become friends and is surprised at how she feels in ‘Waiting for the Runners’.

Grief, ageing, love and quiet heartbreak are also constants. There’s a lovely wistful tone to ‘The Day You Asked Me’ in which an old woman remembers the first time her childhood sweetheart asked her out on his boat, charting their lives until he asks again decades later. In ‘On Old Stones, Old Bones and Love ‘a glimpse of a young couple in love and her husband’s kindness in a crisis reminds an ageing woman of the passion and adventure they once shared.

All this is delivered in nicely polished, insightful prose:

As she knelt, loose stones made themselves comfortable in the soft tissue of her knees. (Labour of Love)

The stalk was furring like a baby rabbit’s pelt, and the smirking mouth was starting to pucker down at the edges, but I still felt it was laughing at me. (Waiting for the Runners)

It was late springtime when you asked me for the first time. The sun was young in the sky, untroubled by cloud, and there were jellyfish everywhere, shrugging and sagging their way through the pea green. (The Day You Asked Me)

Though there is something sad about her, a drooping wilt to her tall frame as if her roots might be too shallow. (The House with Three Stories That Might Be Five)

Dogs barked at them, and the octopuses would wave a tentacle back in disdain. (A Raft of Silver Corpses)

A book that lives up to its fetching cover, then, but you don’t have to take my word for that: Reflex Press have cleverly put ‘The Hagstone’ on their website for you to read.

A Nail, A Rose by Madeleine Bourdouxhe (transl. Faith Evans): Stories about women

A Nail, A Rose is introduced by Faith Evans who first translated Madeleine Bourdouxhe’s stories thirty years ago after meeting the author then in her early 80s. Evans puts the eight pieces comprising this collection in their historical, political and stylistic context, explaining that in the main they were written in the shadow of the Second World War. Bourdouxhe was a feminist writer whose work was much praised by Simone de Beauvoir yet it sank into obscurity until the recent reissue of both La Femme de Gilles and Marie. It’s these spare, striking novellas that made me want to read this collection which spans the years between 1944 and 1985.

Bourdouxhe’s stories are about women. In the eponymous piece, Irene walks home through the blacked-out night shocked by news that her love affair is over. Alarmed at the sound of footsteps behind her, she rounds on her assailant with surprising results. ‘Anna’ evocatively captures the loneliness of a humdrum life, as a woman speculates about her counterpart across the road whose chignon is secured with four nails. ‘Louise’ captures the longing to escape servitude even from the kindest of employers whose act of generosity wins her employee the attention of a man she thinks she loves but finds herself distracted by thoughts of friendship with Madame. Perhaps the most overtly political of the stories, ‘Leah’ sees a woman take decisive and dramatic action when the strike action she’s been covertly working towards is thwarted. In ‘René’, the most fantastical of the stories, a hairdresser’s encounter with an unusual customer evokes a reaction that will overshadow his life, leaving him forever unsatisfied. The final, autobiographical piece, ‘Sous le Pont Mirabeau’ follows a woman who has just given birth as she flees the war, encountering the kindness of strangers and longing for the normality of peace.

Bourdouxhe explores themes of resistance, sexuality, love and the ennui of everyday life in this striking collection. Some stories are more political than others but all are about the lives women lead, their thoughts, wishes and desires. Bourdouxhe accentuates her stories’ apparent simplicity, writing in clean, vivid prose:

Being with Nicolas was just like being with the two tables, the sofa and the radio (Anna)

Love, it’s all the same in the end – it never offers anything new (Anna)

She had a daughter; but though a child might give warmth, a presence and a reason for living, she couldn’t offer relief or help of any kind – she was more of a tender burden (Louise)

Summer was slowly dying. Tomorrow it would be autumn, a long succession of days, and after that a whole lifetime to come (Louise)

Evenings were still, and nights full, light and starry, the sky at peace: in this area, nights had become human again  

He shrank into the distance, getting smaller and smaller until distance overtook him and obliterated everything

These are powerful stories. Much is left unsaid, much for the reader to infer, yet Bourdouxhe’s careful economy of style conveys more in a single unadorned image than a paragraph of overworked flowery prose. What a treat for modern readers to have her work revived.

Home Remedies by Xuan Juliana Wang: Shifting cultures

Cover imageXuan Juliana Wang’s debut collection comes garlanded with praise from Lauren Groff, herself no slouch when it comes to crafting short stories. Wang explores the second-generation immigrant experience through the lens of experience, having arrived in the States with her parents aged seven. Her collection comprises twelve lengthy stories divided into three sections: Family, Love, and Time and Space.

Home Remedies begins with ‘Mott Street in July’ which sees three children of Chinese immigrants left to fend for themselves in the one-bedroom flat they’ve long outgrown, their eyes fixed on an American future. Its dreamlike quality is mirrored in the final story ‘The Art of Straying Off Course’, a whirlwind of snapshots which takes us through an architect’s life as her career progresses until she visits her ancestral home, neatly bookending the collection. One of my favourites, ‘Vaulting the Sea’, is about two seven-year-old boys, future Olympic hopefuls, who become the closest of friends but as they grow older one wants more from the other than he’s able to give. The titular ‘Home Remedies for Non-Life-Threatening Ailments’ is made up of a list of emotional ills with advice for remedying them, from dealing with a crush on an ageing professor to avoiding a father’s grief-stricken phone calls when his ancient dog dies. In ‘Algorithmic Problem-Solving for Father-Daughter Relationships’ a divorced computer scientist muses on the failure of his logical approach to his relationship with his daughter who has never known the hunger he endured and doesn’t appreciate the fact that he knows to the dollar how much it has cost to raise her. ‘The Strawberry Years’ has a photographer struggling to make ends meet and fed up with the multitude of requests to look after Chinese visitors, one of who seems intent on taking over his apartment with her burgeoning Livestream audience’s approval.

Told mostly from the perspective of young Chinese, these are poignant, sharply observed stories often undercut with a dark humour. Some explore intergenerational relationships and the gulf which exists between the expectations and experience of parents and children. They reveal the sheer pace of change for many Chinese, from the living memory of the Cultural Revolution to expectations of a future little different from those of wealthy Americans. Wang’s characters range from the spoilt second-generation rich boy, returning from the States after an act of cruelty for which his best friend may have to pay, to the young man who agrees to a marriage he knows will make him a rich man but at a high price. Her writing is plain yet striking:

His father was a coal miner, a thin, muscular man who looked permanently charred

The blue-eyed girl was still holding on to his hand and he was about to ask “Where is the party?” but the words came to him in Chinese. Then like a voice in an interrupted dream, they flew out of him in perfect English  

I liked the girl I married very much, but not the woman she became after we immigrated to America  

Not all the stories worked for me but it’s an interesting collection which explores a culture I’m ashamed to say I know far less about than I should.

Treading the Uneven Road by L. M. Brown: Life on a small stage

Cover imageTreading the Uneven Road is one of those books I was in two minds about. The author approached me directly which always feels very personal; there’s the worry that an appealing sounding book won’t live up to its promise and might not even get finished let alone reviewed. Given that you’re reading this, it’s clear that I did both. The title of L. M. Brown’s book is a nod to W. B. Yeats’ poem ‘The Phases of the Moon’, a quote from which prefaces this collection of linked short stories set in a small Irish village which explores the interlocking histories of its inhabitants.

It begins with ‘The Lady on the Bridge’ which sees Bernadette, lonely in her marriage and convinced her husband is having an affair, calling a number in his address book and finding herself confiding in the man who answers her. Later in ‘The Shape of Longing’ Bernadette’s uncle castigates her mother for neglecting her and we learn the darkness that lies behind both Ann’s departure and her daughter’s isolation. Two lots of people make a bid for escape. In ‘The Sacred Heart’ brothers Dick and Enda announce their plans to find work in London but events conspire to keep them in their place until a coin is tossed, leaving Enda to shoulder family responsibilities.  Ester and Moire cross the Irish Sea but find their lifelong friendship strained to breaking point when Moire moves in with a man Ester both detests and mistrusts in ‘The Wrong Man’.  ‘A Taste of Salt’ sees a young man longing to be punished for his friend’s accidental death for which he feels overwhelming guilt. His story is reprised in ‘Blackbirds’ when his urge to wreak revenge on his old teacher is thwarted by a realisation of her own tragedy.

Villagers’ lives are tightly interwoven, sometimes uncomfortably so, in these stories which crisscross the ‘80s and ‘90s. Loneliness, loss and isolation are common themes in the lives of this place whose bypass has rid the villagers of the roar of the traffic but left them feeling cut off from the world. It’s a small, self-contained stage on which to set a collection: Brown’s keenly observed characters went to school together, loved each other, hated each other, married, had children and affairs with each other, and judged each other. These are carefully crafted stories, quietly understated although often bleak. A few quotes will give you a flavour:

I thought we would always be together, but we were only children gasping at each other

From the moment my daughter was born, she made me feel like running away

A space existed in Moire where a mother had once been

An impressive collection, then. I’m glad I agreed to review it although I did long for a flash of joy now and then. I’m pleased to report there’s a wee bit of hope at the end of the final piece, not to mention cake and lots of it.

Show Them a Good Time by Nicole Flattery: An idiosyncratic collection

Cover imageI’d heard good things about Nicole Flattery’s Show Them a Good Time well before publication, not in a shouty in-your-face, can’t-get-away-from-it kind of way but enough to snag my attention. Then I spotted Jon McGregor’s and Sally Rooney’s comments, both clearly smitten with Flattery’s writing. I’m still not entirely sure what to make of it but her collection certainly made an impression.

Show Them a Good Time comprises ten stories – some quite short, others lengthier and one which, at over ninety pages, is almost on its way to becoming a novella. ‘Abortion, A Love Story’ sees two young women, students in their final year, collaborate in writing a play staged for just one night before they find their way to the unemployment office. In ‘Not the End Yet’ a woman dates a series of unsatisfactory men in a basement restaurant as surly teenage waiters look on. ‘Parrot’ is about a stepmother who feels uneasy in her role, fielding phone calls from her stepson’s expensive Parisian school about his behaviour. In ‘You’re Going to Forget Who I Am Before I Forget Who You Are’ a children’s author on tour talks to her pregnant sister who’s troubled by her sudden inability to make small talk. Then her memory dims further. ‘Track’ sees a young woman fleeing depression, falling into an affair with a comedian whose career is in decline, his only solace the laughing track his mother gave him. These are my favourites in a collection which explores relationships, gender roles and trying to find a place for yourself in the world.

Flattery’s stories are hard to do justice to in a few lines. Puzzling, sometimes disconcerting and a little off the wall, they’re oddly captivating, both funny and sad. All are written from the perspective of young women: men tend to appear as bit-parts, often not very flattering ones. Flattery’s tone is sardonic and a little subversive. Her female characters are cleverly observed, vivid despite their feelings of not fitting into the world. Lucy and Natasha in ‘Abortion, A Love Story’ reminded me of the eponymous Paulina and Fran in their mismatched friendship. As is so often the case with short stories,  it was the writing that had me scribbling quotes right, left and centre. Here’s a smattering of favourite lines:

As the night progressed, the realisation invariably arrived that this man was not a package at all: he was an envelope, an envelope with a bill in it, an envelope she, quite frankly, wanted to put in a drawer and forget all about (Not the End Yet)

Her mind felt like a long trailer carrying a number of cars; if one car went they would all go, scatter across the motorway, cause carnage.  (Abortion, A Love Story)

Athough she was alone, she didn’t feel alone, she felt like a part of a large pantomime dragon made-up of other women, a long line of them, moving and swaying invisibly through the city. (Abortion, A Love Story)

This was the end of her first relationship and she was determined to enjoy it. (Abortion, A Love Story)

We were both long acquainted with disappointment and the joys of being used (Show Them a Good Time)

She moved up and down the staircase, cheapening the place with the cut of her clothes, searching for her soul at a frantic pace that suggested she was rummaging through a demolition site for the remains of her belongings rather than spending a pleasant few hours in a museum (Parrot)

She had been a bit tired when she entered art college, but dropping out exhausted her (Parrot)

I’ll leave you with one final quote from ‘Abortion, A Love Story:

‘I’m not sure,’ Lucy said, ‘I’m not sure. I don’t know if I get it’

I’m not sure I do, either, but it was fun trying.

Jellyfish by Janice Galloway: A reissue, and some.

Cover imageGiven my not-so-new-found delight in short stories I was keen to read Janice Galloway’s Jellyfish having enjoyed both her memoirs and The Trick is to Keep Breathing. Galloway prefaces her collection with David Lodge’s assertion that literature is mostly about having sex and not much about having children; life’s the other way round. With its themes of parenthood, relationships, death and loss as well as sexuality and desire, Jellyfish is her response. Comprising sixteen stories, it’s a reissue of a collection first published by Freight Books with the addition of two new pieces: ‘Peak’ and ‘Gold’

Galloway’s stories range in length from the two-page celebration of male beauty and desire ‘Looking at You’ to ‘Gold’ which stretches over fifty pages charting a woman’s quiet, solitary life which takes a surprising turn after sharing her admiration of a Chagall with a stranger, then another when a camping trip with a friend is interrupted. ‘That Was Then, This Is Now (1)’ in which lust is coupled with ignorance is laced with the mordant humour running through several of these pieces, at its darkest in ‘Burning Love’ which sees revenge prove lethal. In ‘Peak’ a psychiatrist finds herself faced with an unusual request on a second date and is surprised at how much she enjoys herself while ‘Greek’ sees a woman make a drastic choice when she realises she’s pregnant by her hedonistic lover. Galloway bookends her collection with two stories about parenthood beginning with the titular piece in which a mother takes her carefully raised four-year-old on a day out, knowing that he’ll soon be exposed to all manner of influences other than hers, and ending with ‘Distance’ in which a  child’s fall sparks a fear of just about everything in his mother leading to a radical solution at great emotional cost to herself.

Part of the joy of these stories is Galloway’s writing. I could stuff this review full of quotes but I’ll keep it to just a few favourites:

His skin didn’t crease, she thought. Whatever he did with his face, it unfolded again smooth as soap (Jellyfish)

Murray needed the freedom to flit in and out of lives as though they were incidental train platforms between his journey to himself (Fine Day)

The Guggenheim was made in bright white slices, an unmissable space-ship of a building parked off-road for the afternoon (Gold)

If she thought I’d forgotten about the shed, she had another think coming. I’d poke her fucking shed-sheltered library with a poker and burn it to funerary ash (Burning Love)

In her acknowledgments, Galloway graciously thanks her publishers noting that:

Publishers are shy of short stories in the here and now, shy like people are shy of three-legged puppies, which is to say they’d love to give them a home, but are nervous of their apparent handicap in that they are not novels.

What a lovely way to end this thoroughly enjoyable, thoughtful, wryly amusing yet often poignant collection.

Evening in Paradise by Lucia Berlin: An unexpected treat

Cover imageI owe my short story conversion largely to Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women. There’d been others along the way but it was Berlin’s collection that sealed the deal. Given that she died in 2004, I’d assumed that was it and so was delighted when Evening in Paradise turned up. Comprising twenty-two stories, this new collection lacks the more detailed biographical notes included in A Manual for Cleaning Women, perhaps because there’s a memoir due to be published alongside it, but it’s clear that it also draws on her own life and what a rackety life it was: several marriages, four children and alcoholism followed a peripatetic childhood spent in mining towns with a brief glamorous teenage period in Chile.

Opening in segregated Texas in 1943 with the bright childhood memories of ‘The Musical Vanity Boxes’, these are vivid stories which glow with evocative descriptive language, often set against gorgeous backdrops, from the Chilean countryside to the Mexican coastline and the Arizonan desert. Many explore relationships between men and women with a dry wit and sharp insight. Men are artists, musicians and writers who expect their wives to get on with the humdrum details of life such as sorting out the plumbing and bringing up the children, not to mention dealing with the former tenants who never quite move out in ‘The Adobe House with a Tin Roof’. Humour and social observation are hallmarks of Berlin’s style, exemplified in ‘My Life Is an Open Book’ which sees town gossips use the opportunity of a potential tragedy to rifle the home of a single mother in search of her address book, but she can be sombre, too. In ‘Anando’ an apparently sophisticated fourteen-year-old girl is groomed for seduction by her father’s boss almost with her father’s collusion. My two favourites, however, are both darkly comic: in ‘Cherry Blossom Time’ Cassandra, bored with her teeth-grindingly predictable routine, imagines something different with dramatic results while ‘The Wives’ sees two ex-wives compare remarkably similar intimate notes on their rich junkie ex-husband.

Berlin is such an immensely quotable author that it’s hard to know where to start with her writing, or perhaps that should be where to stop, but these are a few of my favourites:

Alma was sweet and beautiful until late in the evening when her eyes and mouth turned into bruises and her voice became a sob, like she just wished you’d hit her and leave. Ruby was close to fifty, lifted and dyed and patched together. (Evening in Paradise)

Downtown the Washington Market is deserted until midnight Sunday when suddenly the fruit and vegetable markets open out onto the streets, wild banners of lemons, plums, tangerines. (A Foggy Day)

The sky was filled with stars and it was as if there were so many that some were just jumping off the edge of it, tumbling and spilling into the night. Dozens, hundreds, millions of shooting stars until finally a wisp of cloud covered them and softly more clouds covered the sky above us. (Sometimes in Summer)

It would have been in poor taste for me to tell the girls at school just how many unbelievably handsome men had been at that funeral. I did anyway. (Dust to Dust)

In the airport women wore fur coats and their dogs wore fur coats. I was terrified by so many dogs. Little dogs with hair dyed peach to match the women’s hair. Painted toenails. Plaid bootees. Rhinestone or maybe diamond collars. The whole airport was yapping. (Itinerary)

I hope that’s whetted your appetite.

Girl, Balancing by Helen Dunmore: An unexpected, very welcome treat

Cover imageIn his touching Foreword to Girl, Balancing and Other Stories, Helen Dunmore’s son, Patrick Charnley, tells us that she had discussed with him the possibility of a collection of short stories to be published after her death. Charnley mined his mother’s papers and laptop, gathering together thirty-three pieces written in the two decades since Dunmore’s last collection was published. Demonstrating the empathy that characterised so much of his mother’s work, Charnley tells us that the family’s delight in what he found is one of our reasons for publishing the collection, to share this work with Mum’ s readers, many of whom, too, must feel that their enjoyment of Mum’s writing has been cut short.

The first of the collection’s three sections, The Nina Stories, is made up of three linked pieces beginning with the comfort of warm olive oil in a sore ear and ending with an assertion of a young woman’s independence in the face of danger.

The Present starts with the teasing humour of ‘Taken in the Shadows’ in which the narrator contemplates John Donne’s portrait, the object of many a fifteen-year-old’s desire, imagining his ankle itching as he sits for it before recounting the miseries of a life spent in poverty. Three favourites from this section for me include ‘All Those Personal Survival Medals’ which turns a burning childhood humiliation into a life-saving triumph, ‘A Night Out’ in which two women, prematurely widowed, find unexpected friendship and the poignant ‘Portrait of Auntie Binbag, with Ribbons’ in which a young girl is faced with the result of her family’s dismissive perception of her aunt.

The Past takes us from the wartime passion of ‘Rose, 44’ which sees a young woman’s hopes for her black American lover violently quashed to ‘With Shackleton’ in which a woman inwardly rails against her mother-in-law’s pride as she misses her husband, off on an expedition soon after her miscarriage to ‘Grace Poole Her Testimony’ in which Dunmore has fun with Jane Eyre, throwing a very different light on Rochester and his daughter’s governess.

Many of the themes running through these stories will be familiar to Dunmore fans. Family, friendship, memory, love and passion, and, of course, women and their place in the world are all adroitly explored. Several are set in Bristol where Dunmore had lived and worked for many years: ‘A View from the Observatory’ which recalls an illicit moonlit visit to the camera obscura on the Downs is a particular delight with its air of menace, deftly handled in Dunmore’s characteristic style. As ever with Dunmore, so much is said in a few precisely chosen words: in ‘Duty Free’ a woman reflects on the youth of the soldiers passing through on their way to Afghanistan but with characteristic restraint Dunmore makes no mention of what may happen to them. You won’t be surprised to hear that there are a multitude of lines I could have quoted but here are a few which seem to me to capture Dunmore’s wonderful facility with language and acute observation:

There were lots of drawings of a bare man who looked as if he didn’t know he hadn’t got any clothes on thinks an eleven-year-old at an exhibition

Our students like modules which demand opinions rather than extensive reading an academic wryly observes

I would stare down to see if my badness was flickering away across the dust like a snake remembers a woman of her childhood beating

They were offering smiles now, and Christmas greetings, as if they were all survivors of a wreck and had been hauled up on to the same raft expresses the relief of family Christmases almost over

I’m driving in the dark. There’s not another car in sight. I haven’t seen one for miles. Only my own headlights, brushing the loneliness

Even if a woman has always coloured her hair, she won’t be able to fool anyone after her death 

There’s not one dud in this collection. I’m sure Dunmore’s many fans will be as grateful to her family as I am for sharing this final, unexpected treat.

You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld: Appearances can be deceptive

Cover imageI read Curtis Sittenfeld’s The American Wife on holiday quite some time ago and found it hard to drag myself away from. Those who’ve read it will know that the titular wife is loosely based on Laura Bush which certainly added spice to the reading but the quality of Sittenfeld’s writing would have kept me riveted regardless of that. The same acute social observation and smartly delivered writing marks her first short story collection, You Think It, I’ll Say It.

In the opening piece, ‘The Nominee’, Hillary Clinton wonders why a journalist to whom she’s extended kindness in the most humiliating of circumstances insists on describing her as unlikable. ‘Do-Over’, which caught the Sunday Times Short Story Award judges’ attention, nicely bookends the collection with its examination of gender in the Trump/Clinton contest seen through the lens of two competitors for a student post. Now middle-aged, their reunion takes a surprising turn for the male candidate. In ‘Gender Studies’ a recently single professor finds herself in an unexpected encounter with a cab driver while ‘The Prairie Wife’ sees a woman driving herself into a fury, constantly checking the Twitter feed of an old acquaintance whose online persona is at odds with her past and longing to spill the beans until a very public revelation touches her. Unusually, rather than referring to a story, the collection’s title is the name of a game devised by a man who encourages his colleague’s wife to disparage their friends for his amusement leading to an embarrassing misapprehension on her part in ’The World Has Many Butterflies’.

The overarching theme of these stories is the gulf between our perception of ourselves and other people, and theirs of us. Characters’ initial impressions are often proven entirely, sometimes comically, wrong: the apparently confident girl from high school days turns out to have been wracked with shyness; a naive young student makes a string of social misjudgments happily corrected in later life; a journalist is surprised by a TV star’s apparent assumption of intimacy between them. Often a relationship which begins with suspicion or downright dislike turns into something else so that we re-examine our own prejudices. Gender is firmly to the fore – women and childcare, expectations of female beauty, distribution of domestic chores – all deftly and effectively handled. Sittenfeld’s last novel, Eligible, was a twenty-first century take on Pride and Prejudice which seems entirely appropriate. Her acute observation, neatly skewering modern social mores with sly, occasionally waspish wit, is a match for Jane Austen’s in this intelligent, satisfying collection.