Best British Short Stories 2016

Series editor NICHOLAS ROYLE
(My previous reviews of this writer are linked from HERE)

(My previous reviews of this publisher are HERE)

Featuring stories by: Claire-Louise Bennett, Neil Campbell, Crista Ermiya, Stuart Evers, Trevor Fevin, David Gaffney, Janice Galloway, Jessie Greengrass, Kate Hendry, Thomas McMullan, Graham Mort, Ian Parkinson, Tony Peake, Alex Preston, Leone Ross, John Saul, Colette Sensier, Robert Sheppard, DJ Taylor, Greg Thorpe, Mark Valentine.

I hope to gestalt real-time review this book over the next few months in the comment stream below…

28 thoughts on “Best British Short Stories 2016

  1. In 2015, I reviewed the first story as follows, in the context here:


    by Leone Ross

    “She has been somebody.”

    Does that mean she has been somebody special and now just an ordinary woman? Or she is now somebody (or something) else?
    You need to wait until the end of this story to discover the answer to that.
    This story, too, develops, from apparent whimsical absurdity towards a meaningful metaphor for existence by means of culinary peculiarities, restaurant politics, the art of love, graphic lust, personal status, adventuring of body parts, the nature of architecture – a surreal truth that, as a gestalt, cunningly seems, at least for the duration of a brief earthquake, nearer to reality than reality itself.
    I have heard of women setting themselves up in hotels for their whole lives, but there they at least have an ensuite room of their own, and room service. Here the woman sits at a restaurant table and uses the normal customer facilities for ablutions etc. We are told her backstory and consequent relationships with various members of the restaurant staff, and the deadpan use of smart-tufted words keeps her situation between the margins of a kind reader’s believability. An eventually original experience, worth enjoying.
    I look up, towards these words, as if making literary decisions.
    The restaurant has been something.

  2. Arrivals


    “My husband demands eggs for breakfast and I scramble three.’

    An incantation of babies, breaking shells not spells and the concertina refrains of expecting what and who rears whom. Baby brands and strictures of parent- or child-hood and which comes first these days.

  3. I happened to review the next story a couple of months ago here: and below is what I wrote about it in that context:-


    Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
    Earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away;
    Change and decay in all around I see—
    O Thou who changest not, abide with me.
    (From the ‘Abide With Me’ lyrics by Henry F. Lyte, 1847)

    I looked throughout the lyrics for a certain letter, and suddenly saw it started the word ‘joys’. Then, as if by magic, I sensed a moving finger add to the end of the next story: “But we don’t live a sentence, any of us, only a word, finally a letter, then nothing.” But fiction abides in its own domain whatever happens to us, I replied to whoever added it.

    VAIN SHADOWS FLEE by Mark Valentine

    “In memoriam Joel Lane.”

    This is the story of Bide-y, a near derelict old man whose existence is pervaded by his own singing, intoning, humming, mumbling, silently mouthing the hymn as him, the hymn whence that old nickname derived. It is a poignant, sacred, beautifully textured, unforgettable, unquenchable fiction, shown on the loom of a Hobbes Leviathan as if painted, I sense, by Arcimboldo, not as a human’s single unburied “head”: a conjoined gestalt of several dead or living objects such as berries and plums and household implements, but as a “miniature in his pocket”, itself a conjoined gestalt of many such risen human heads. The uncertainty of all earthly and unearthly things, the sleep mask of Mammilius, Mammalius or Mamillius? (‘A sad tale’s best for winter: I have one.’)


    My previous reviews of Mark Valentine: HERE

  4. The Politics of Minor Resistance


    “…but my skull is abnormally large and, as a result, the fit of the headphones is inadequate. Even on their widest setting they have to be overextended,…”

    For someone who self-identifies with THE BIG-HEADED PEOPLE, this is just up my street. Horror stories, I love. Why? Who knows! It’s like working on a sales telephone-bank with set scripts by rote with gaps to fill with your own silent bespoke personality, unless you morph the way you ‘perform’ the script, or add things to it by creative Tourette’s. Or imagine you are in a Tati film with severely manicured lawns and ‘mon oncle’ accoutrements…
    Hey, I have just added personal things to this horror story while describing it. A great attritional, meticulously adumbrated horror story that does not realise it is anything more than its own set script.

  5. Walsingham


    “Don’t you see that, that you simply can’t trust anything in this world?”

    “There was this weird ritual she had, though, of scribbling indecipherable messages on pale blue ribbons and wearing them, while she slept, tied about her legs.”

    I read and reviewed earlier today here about night tethers in ‘Ten Things To Know About The Ten Questions’. The hoisted or hawled attenuation towards existence’s vanishment and the narrator, who only ‘loves’ men, dares not look into the sky at the end for that reason, along with Laura, his sporadic friend from university onward, Laura who only ‘loves’ women, as she completes her pilgrimage (accompanied by the narrator) to the eponymous destination in Norfolk, to find God in the sky, or in Laura’s case the Virgin Mary or more likely her dream Goddess, I suggest, after a lifetime of others abusing her … or to find some hopelessly recurring Pi in the Sky, I again suggest, or so the Narrator himself suggests in his own stoical deadpan fashion… A telling amoral fable.

  6. A Belgian Story


    “During our meetings, what I presume to be a mild form of silent Tourette’s would surface within my mind, and I would sit and pretend to listen to him talking,…”

    …as in the set script of this book’s earlier thought-Tourette’s telephone operator…and here is one of probably the most creative of all gloomily attritional tales I have ever read to compete with that earlier one. A foreign man – as narrator who has more to hide than his own narration – in Belgium, meeting a once seemingly googleable English writer, so if this story is in English who could have more easily written it? A set script itself. Possibly written by me in a form of tracing its typeface, me who lives opposite low coastal Belgium in low coastal Essex. Lewis an aberrant mistype for Louise? Shooting rats, one against the other, rats that once came from Camus. L’Étranger, and his gratuitous gun, indeed.

    “A seaside town used for the purposes of psychological torture.”

    My review in 2015 of this author’s The Beginning of the End:

  7. Some Versions of Pastoral


    “The road signs, which had hitherto been sporadic and confusing, now suggested that they were somewhere near Colchester.”

    This is absolute genius. One of those stories I endlessly await with bated breath and that rarely come. A story from a Suffolk-like land of literature where there are no critiqual sat-navs; it is both wonderfully hilarious and deeply poignant, as we, in the shape of a middle-aged married couple who once had literary connections within a now elderly couple’s erstwhile gestalt of a career in books that we read when listening to the wireless and clinking memory-steeped tea-cups that might have passed through more important hands than ours. Indeed, we have crawled through the ordered undergrowth of the past, its picturebook innocence as well as its wit and art that had hopefully kept modernity at bay. We grow smaller, too, in the face of today’s increasingly crass larger-than-lifeness, but during such an endless Zeno’s Paradox of diminuendo we might at least be able to creep into those witty-literary or honestly poetic books ourselves. Primary colours and pastel hues, alike, amid a once civilisedly mad and unrequited love, a love still ever upon the point of requital.

  8. Mrs Świętokrzyskie’s Castle


    “But Mrs Świętokrzyskie has moved once already, across the whole of Europe. She doesn’t intend to move again. Here she has Josef; she has a new girlfriend of Josef’s to meet every few months; she has her girls at her hospital, and she has a Silver Sword ranking on the computer.”

    Her son Josef, her daughter, too, whom I couldn’t nail down as dead or alive, her job at the hospital, her Polish backstory and this her life in London, visiting Buckingham Palace. And her high-fantasy gaming off-life on-line where virtual riches were earned by her, and her wonderful avatar in liaison with that of Bernard’s, a man to whom she leaves her password (much to her son’s chagrin), after an aneurysm felled her instead of felling someone else. Touching, arguably original fiction-in-words about her, a fiction telling of an even deeper fiction that becomes her real life. Think about it! A bit like that earlier woman in the restaurant? Or that earlier Tourette’s telephoneer?

  9. A Leg to Stand On


    ‘Just read great literature and then write. The rest is just bollocks. Tangential at best.’

    Colin Bell Book and Candled. This is a mix of laddish beers and ogled barmaids and football reminiscence, mixed with the occasional pub talk regarding creative writing and literature in which career they behave badly, too. Makes me glad I am untouchable in this dark ivory tower of real-time cybercritiques. Crap story, by the way.

    My previous reviews of this author:

  10. Wyndham Le Strange Buys the School


    “There is a temptation, when you’ve been through hell, to live there afterwards. Going back like this, to the other side, seems one way of moving forward, of pulling our feet from the mud and gore.”

    As effective foil to the more uncouth literary laddishness of the previous story, here we have men or lads in a civilised retrenchment following their participation in the Great War (the “pitiless rain” of “Wipers”, for example), returned to their old school, now not a school but purchased by one of them. It is utterly poetic and full of the mannered atmosphere of their school days, and full, too, of gradual requital, as one by one, they return to love and life, duly healed from their experiences. Partly sublime vision, partly irrational nightmare, partly real events, and girl friends and other elements of the future awaiting their cathartic shaking off of these close male relationships, their memories to be reconciled and epiphanised. Except perhaps for one of them. A most moving ending, amid a reprise of “machine guns”. I simply knew there would be mention of at least one gun to finish off this splendid work when I saw them all reading Chekhov earlier.

  11. Song of the River


    “the word-thing
    words added to things everywhere”

    Indeed, this story is the perfect and perhaps only version of that, in an almost associational river of semi-automatic musical (literal and figurative) expression. Not a mere weir, lake or even stream of consciousness, and I said ‘almost’ and ‘semi-‘ advisedly, as its otherwise eccentric narrative has an inner truth of events as Susan and Molly decide to live together, as friends and housemates, after one’s latest unsatisfactory ex had departed from her life, and the other’s tamarin monkey quest and her bones collected in boxes hobby take sway. Or vice versa. These aspects become delightfully mingled, along with cow parsley and Liquorice Angus and the Thames boat race and giant shadows approaching Heathrow. A river with a ha-ha not a weir? And another Version of Pastoral? This time by Beethoven.

  12. 1961


    “Sometime in the night I woke from sobriety and the cold. I could smell cigarette smoke all around me but saw nobody.”

    “I need everything to slow down. Slow down or be nothing at all.”

    A mixture of timing with or without a wristwatch. A few dates in 1961, followed by one in 1969. Lackadaisical cottaging in New York, followed by an even keel of nobody or nothing, even if this narrator’s nothing or nobody contains a wife and a baby.

  13. 1977


    ‘Mother, what is this?’ Memet’s dad asked when he got home. ‘Are we living in the dark ages? No. This is modern Great Britain in the 1970s. We are not peasants.’

    A sort of imposed dark ages that we all live in wherever and whenever we live and whoever or whatever colour or miscegenation we are. Marriages back and forth, talismans exchanged, men, too, the women jilted or impregnated or even loved, friendships between boy and adult woman, secret desires half exposed between older men and younger women, and a dark age if not black magic of birth where even a baby may become a cocked-up or carcinogenic miscegenation. An open ended dying fall ending or just another magic pregnancy to give birth to a golden cockerel fantasy or just poultry grit in the womb?

  14. The Staring Man


    The couple looked innocently happy, their small trim frames somehow weightless, as if in those days there had been less gravity.”

    An utterly moving story. But I am not sure why. A story of a model being modelled, the model maker Charlotte, her explanation of memorialising the Park as it once was, with her models of the people of the times, certain prescriptive rules as to the overall model, and her cameo staring man (like Hitchcock in all of his own films), staring outward or upward as if that made what was within or deeper below better. A belief in God or not. And an old ex teacher of English with a monochrome photo of him and his nuclear family from the days of the park and its paddling pool, or was it a boating lake? I dare not look back at it. We all can float, if we can relax, whatever it is. Let us take what takes us. And take those we can’t leave behind to fend for themselves. Better that the gravity could have taken her (his daughter) back then? My extrapolations from this story, but if you read it you may only be able to read its surface. It takes someone, an old man like me, to create a diversion from its depths. Or point to them disarmingly, more like.

  15. The Bluebell Wood


    “, nowhere near the crown: as remote from their intended destination as she’d always been from any of life’s finishing posts. Except for one, of course. The last post.”

    There is something wonderfully paradoxical about that. And there is something equally wonderful about this prose-conjured trip of a maiden spinster sister (ostensibly, one of life’s relative losers) in her wheelchair – being pushed at some effort towards that crown by the other sister (ostensibly, one of life’s relative winners) helped by the latter’s two children. The perspective changes, though, into a wonderful switch of this ostensible win and lose as linked by the sudden realised beauty of this text itself which we imagine could have been written by the sister in the wheelchair, a vision of life that already resides confidently in the mind and not that inferior vision as seen through fallible bodily organs. A Zeno’s Paradox of a race betwwn hare and tortoise. Inner beauty subsuming any fallibilities at last. I spend my own declining bodily life subsumed in a growing gestalt of such texts, a fuller life than life itself?

  16. My Husband Wants to Talk to Me Again


    “I used to think that freedom would be an empty laundry basket.”

    This story has the attrition of a marital break-up at its early stages as they try to split up as amicably as possible. For the sake of each other, and their children. All tied up with the physical nature of tangled domestic washing being machined and laundered in media res… the wifely wifi now stalled, as it were, the preternatural link she has with her husband. Not ‘no fault’, but his fault, we infer, as he tries to entice her into short-tempered shirtiness regarding the sharing out of their mutual goods and chattels, alongside his chauvinist belief that she is the chattel he is selflessly sacrificing for some greater mutual good. Leaves me wrung out – in a way that we all to need to be hung out to dry for later ironing, something that only a short short such as this nifty item of literature can manage. The laundering not of money, but of something indefinable.

  17. In Theory, Theories Exist


    “There seemed so much less to know back then, or maybe history simply seeped away into the soil.”

    And soil and stone can maintain life, too, and defeat death, that eponymous or authorial Mort, not a fish called mört, nor a lipsticked Christ in a Mediterranean religious building… This is a substantive story about Ralph, who is 54: not returning to the Pyramids (“Denial wasn’t just a river in Egypt, as Simon used to say.”) but to the Mediterranean Pyrenees. A test, a re-living. We are given an immaculate feel for this genius loci, take that as read. From sea to rocks and plants and more, yes, much more. That more again. Precise, pointilliste as well as amorphously heartfelt. We are given, too, an immaculate feel for the gestalt of Ralph himself… “…until language itself died. He couldn’t decide if it was good to be alive or not. Being close to death had brought him face to face with a vast ignorance.” The death of the author. Wimsatt’s Intentional Fallacy and the eponymous reference to Latour. Even the feel of Nabokov and his language. The word ‘viable’ as to one’s self, and cricket. His loving relationship with Simon, someone who somehow escapes off the line’s hook when Ralph goes through a rite of passage of illness, and surgery, something else of which we are given immaculate knowledge and linguistic conception. We live through this major hurdle with him. And now his self-imposed test in the Pyrenees. And we learn, too, of his more inscrutable relationship with Stella. And with the politics of Academia, literature et al. And implied submission of his own soul upon Christ’s line. “He’d realise that in their own unachievable way they loved each other — without passion, without longing, but with a kind of recognition.” Simon or Christ? The death of the author, in theory, not practice? A major work.

    Review by Des Lewis (English Department, Lancaster University, 1966-69)

  18. Control Knobs


    “…because, nowadays, in addition to hardly anyone ever saying nowadays,…”

    This is an OCD or autistic descriptive, and I know people, obsessed with Belling or Salton mini-ovens and hobs, or washing machines, and talk for an eternity about them, or obsessed with the niceties and minutiae of word association leading to more than just separate words, but rather a hypnotically incantatory prose-textured refrain (incredibly without repetition, rhyme or recurrence) about the Irish Potato famine, and this text is the very body of a Swiftian Modest Proposal to rid this narrator of obsessions by writing something like this, something that the narrator can eponymously control. The ultimate therapy. The knife inside it, however, does not help, as how to use it. To peel ready for cooking? Then eating. But, as a means towards integration of self, by slavishly counting a thousand matches, the narrator will not produce a single match. “Because there are no other human faces her own face has no currency and it doesn’t seem to express any of the customary hallmarks and it’s difficult for her to pinpoint anything in it that is familiar.” A post-holocaust fantasy, after all? The last one left alive; an eternity of talking; to a mirror?

  19. The Only Thing Is Certain Is


    “As we moved down Parliament Hill the landmarks to the south were swallowed by the horizon. With every step the crowd became harder to define.”

    Another post-holcaust vision?
    Like the previous story, an end to end incantatory refrain as it were in prose. Here a theme and variations on an oven, too, with control knobs, but with an Essence of Eschatology, a crematorium, a bigger oven, but then a smaller oven, a cremation urn but hot as the womb of the pregnant woman down on the tube train. But then we are above the city with the main protagonist or above the whole world, flying with a small frisbee or upon a large plane, a sense of the alternate dystopic future, with deaths wrought by stakes, somehow mixed with an overweening concern for the air we breathe and what we put into it. The gestalt’s ashes with either our world its hopeful foetus or just containing the scorched coins that once blinded our already dead eyes….

  20. Live from the Palladium


    ‘When I grow up, Mr Hughes, I want to be a proctologist.’

    The story of a boy, the son of a relatively successful stand-up comedian, who had once performed a brown suit routine. A video of it is meticulously watched regularly by the son’s promiscuous mother together with the son. A sort of fatalistically abortive Waste Land of ambition, that he should follow…

    “Men come and go, quoting lines from ’Allo ’Allo!”

    …follow in his late father’s footsteps, literally. His father always said that the best jokes are in the present tense. Perhaps that’s why nobody knows his jokes today? Boom boom. A touching story of mother and son, where his jokily announced ambition to be a proctologist provided the most poignant joke of all…at the end.
    A frozen frame of the earlier staring man?

    ‘Roseanne Barr.’
    ‘Roseanne? Like a sack of lesbian potatoes shouting in a mini-mart.’

    My previous reviews of this author:

  21. Distance


    “She took poems into Chemistry classrooms, conducted debates on animal welfare in Physics, played Philip Glass in Maths…”

    Martha, a supply teacher, who suffers from anxiety, following the accident to her son’s head when he hit a glass table and her mother’s suicide. Although her mental situation is more complex than my summary, the story’s style itself is simple – simple but effective. Full of thoughtful and provocative backstory details – plus such objective-correlatives as a wounded stag, Mozart and Orwell. The attrition of her marriage and the eventual cutting herself off from the husband and indeed her son are central and long-lasting. A fine coda to this book. Not Martha’s or the book’s gestalt. Mrs Świętokrzyskie’s aneurysm, notwithstanding.

    “Repressed and paranoid and dying is not a whole picture of anyone.”

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