Best British Short Stories 2020


Edited by Nicholas Royle

My previous reviews of Nicholas Royle: Salt Publishing: Best British Short Stories:

Stories by Luke Brown, Irenosen Okojie, David Constantine, Zakia Uddin, Richard Lawrence Bennett, Nicola Freeman, Amanthi Harris, Andrew Hook, Hanif Kureishi, Sarah Schofield, Sonia Hope, Jeff Noon, Bridget Penney, Stephen Thompson, KJ Orr, Diana Powell, David Rose, NJ Stallard, Tim Etchells, Adrian Slatcher, Helen Mort, Robert Stone.

When I read this book, my thoughts will appear in the comment stream below…

35 thoughts on “Best British Short Stories 2020

  1. All the stories in this book were first published in 2019, so they are likely to be period pieces like Jane Austen…

    BEYOND CRITICISM by Luke Brown

    “Her mother had breathed oxygen in the days before the world had divided itself…”

    …and, indeed, this story has references to Brexit and Corbyn as prevailing issues. Yet, it is engagingly timeless, if derived from potential food voucher screenshots and pornography apps reflected ‘accidentally’ in train windows and modern relationships, and gender and racial unstereotyping, with counterintuitive conversations to match different ulterior motives. Sexual enigma, sexual engineering, and role playing, and penetrating the hijab. Libido as a computer fan. The freehold author, who I only know as a name, sees the world through such perhaps dubiously perceived leasehold-protagonism of a woman’s POV, about her male exes, and a man she chats up on a train. Her tipping point of a phantom pregnancy. Expressed by sophisticated turns of witty phrase that ejaculate pencil shavings, ending with the leap and contortive thrust of social skateboard distancing. So hard to recover one’s balance, after I found my mind stretched satisfyingly by this disarmingly complex portrait of somewhen’s mœurs. The judicious choice between now non-existent Pizza Expresses, notwithstanding.

  2. NUDIBRANCH by Irenosen Okojie

    “They mimic the sound of a lung sinking, chasing an echo thinking it can catch it.”

    The previous story started with a woman handling herself concupiscently and here the eponymous sea slug, as I understand it to be, is representative of either what it is, in this story, being self-stimulated or what, as slugs, self-evidently, are missing from this story’s ritual eunuchs. A story of puckered nipples and the reincarnatively recurrent eating of the hearts of men in various exotic venues and the heart-eater being under a single prevailing woman’s different ages and natures, within a tactilely visionary panoply that could also easily have, with ultra-imaginative projection, happened in the previous story, too! But that is not otherwise to ignore the truly unimaginable projections here, so beyond even our own covivid dreaming today, projected into realms of such utter rarefying beyond my perceived ability to convey it on your behalf. So, you need to read this ‘story’ for yourself to be able to absorb its unparalleled experience. I think I did it, at least partially, via osmosis! Einsteinian sucking equations, oddments of objects from our own crass reality, too, ‘lungs shrinking’ like those diminished penis-slugs, and it is a little girl who ends up swallowing those men’s hearts. And I dare not interpret that! I just leave you with the thought. A tale that they forgot to put in the Bible. Oh to be blessed with dying suddenly and quickly by accident, beyond any need to maintain our lungs’ venting or our slugs’ shrinking, I guess. Too late for some.

    My previous reviews of this author:

  3. …and, following what I said at the start of this review, the next story is truly a period piece when people used to go out into hallways when hearing the telephone ring to answer it (some older people still do), but blending this periodness with the Einsteinian or Euclidean soft geometry of generative organs — here the poetic ‘spermy’ and ‘creamily’ used around a jutting rowan in the Lake District…

    THE PHONE CALL by David Constantine

    “In bed Christine reflected that you shouldn’t let the sun go down on your wrath because one of you might be taken by death in the night and forgiveness be prevented.”

    …and these are the older people in question, as Christine receives a phone call from a man she cannot remember but who tells her she met him on a poetry course twenty years ago, telling her — perhaps in the light of the above quote from this story’s setting wherein the phone call happens — of his terminal illness. She tells her beans-watering husband (who had treated her to that erstwhile poetry course all those years ago) about this phone call, or at least we hear what she tells her husband, assuming it is true, and the existence of this phone call nags at them thereafter, upon the tipping-points of miracles and doubts. A beautiful story of a near end-of-life marital relationship, a story in itself that is due to continue nagging at me, too. With Christine’s fingering of her lower lip factored in. A land-line foregone.

    “Did phoning alphabetically through the address book help him in the least?”

    My previous review of this author:

  4. VASHTI by Zakia Uddin

    “When I went into the kitchen, the floor was covered in slugs.”

    Sporadically, I, too, have problems with slugs in the kitchen living as I do in my own version of Wakesea near Colchester. But it seems also relevant to this book’s gestalt so far, specially the greasy track of an oily bedsheet as one of this story’s relationships’ objective-correlatives. Together with a reflective orb, psychokinetics, clary sage, a charlatan’s curse, goats in a petting zoo and a gauche girl’s imaginary friend as a flightless bird called Jackie. And many more. A consuming story enfolding the relationships, just as the meaty paragraphs enfold the participants’ dialogue. A telling portrait of a dance teacher called Vashti, the gauche girl called Cherri whom she teaches and tries to make more confident, the relationship evolved between Vashti with Cherri’s franchising father, Vashti’s relationship with the woman running the dance school — all their backstories well-characterised as part of this story’s swaddling feel. And a striking seedy seaside outcome involving green slime that is not quite the dance finale once promised. A good example of each reader being enfranchised with a bespoke fiction. Given our own lines and props.

    “She stood not so far from the other girls that it looked odd, but not so close that it was obvious they were ignoring her.”

  5. ENERGY THIEVES: FIVE DIALOGUES by Richard Lawrence Bennett

    “Really? It looks more like a wig to me.”

    An engaging what-it-says-on-the-tin, at least four dialogues creating its own timid interlocutor to accentuate the wisdom of the main speaker — five dialogues purporting to be about absorbing energy, the first one about gathering around the energy of whoever seems to be the most sociable or mentally/physically attractive being at, say a business buffet when juggling foodstuffs as well as conversation, the second dialogue about sucking the energy from one big worry, say, the subsuming worry about one’s impending death, to quash the energy of all the other worries, the third about never feeling young as one always compares one self to younger people, or does it say that? My attention was wandering as I approached the fifth dialogue. The fourth is about groupthink homogeneity being the cure-all for ageing, and, yes, the fifth dialogue is about groupthink itself, and now I have as interlocutor lost concentration altogether and have extraneity-creep. So, it is highly ironic and significant that this is the fifth best-story chosen to be in this book, thus using itself as its own gestalt of dialogues to disrupt my concentration from the whole book’s gestalt so far. It achieves this by extending its own extraneity-creep of the fifth disruptive dialogue into disrupting (like a prime ministerial special adviser does to what he sees as groupthink?), yes, disrupting my own flair and spontaneity regarding the previous four stories’ groupthink-gestalt of phallic or clitoral or kitchen slugs and spermy rowans etc. Damn all Socratic energy thieves, I say!

  6. HALLOWEEN by Nicola Freeman

    “…my belief that an unpleasant odour now flowed through our lives like a contaminated river.”

    The hesitation at the threshold of the house, and some other aspects of this truly haunting storylet of a woman and her marriage make me think this is not a pre-Covid period piece at all. As if Christine’s lower lip earlier above has more subtle secrets to divulge, some more or less cancerous than others.
    Her plate of specially baked trick and treat biscuits and the spectral lover notwithstanding, I sadly find much in common with it. As I think each reader will find it bespoke for them, in a particular permutation of its touching as well as diminuendo aspects.

  7. IN THE MOUNTAINS by Amanthi Harris

    “Stone steps climbed to a cactus, half in bloom, half dying, by a gatepost.”

    This story affected me perhaps more than what others might say it deserved to do. It suddenly dawned on me, some hidden meaning, from the twice strangely spelt ‘cactii’ rather than ‘cacti’ or ‘cactuses’. As if there were two first person singulars embodied by this red cochineal-bugged plant, half blooming like Anya (a cripplingly shy English artist who has transmigrated to Spain and this village of labyrinthine quaintness and local waywardness in the mountains) and her counterpart represented by the ageing David already planted there, half dying. This dawning and drawing in upon me made a more poignant and tantalisingly meaningful sense of the way her own drawings, her pencil strokes, evolved into (what, since this story was published, we might call) their denouement of a co-vivid dream, a dream that now becomes a retroactive part of a now completed reality. A story of a cactus.

  8. From the presaging wig above to…


    “‘They’ve agreed the wig,’ he said. ‘It’s in the box.’”

    I would honestly deem this to be a classic cinematic-fiction disorientation story. And it segues so beautifully with my happening, by chance, to be simultaneously reviewing this author’s new collection, ‘Frequencies of Existence.’ A story about an actress playing Marilyn Monroe and her relationship with Kennedy, involving the surrounding hitmen or conspiracy theories, mixed with the use of understudies or near doppelgängers and the actress’ own marital home life as its own autopsy flick. Yes, definitely, a classic. Needs to be read, assuming you are the reader who ends up reading it.

    “Is this a work of fiction or isn’t it?”

    My other reviews of this author:

  9. SHE SAID HE SAID by Hanif Kureishi

    “In these impossible times, courtship rituals were being corrected. In the chaos, those seeking love would make missteps;”

    As I said at the start, all the stories in this book were first published in 2019. And, incredibly, this story of marital and foursome mœurs has developed into a strong unmistakeable fable for our times. Seriously so. How was that possible? It has turned an otherwise sharply engaging and observant story into something else, something truly and memorably special. The prophetic fable’s subject of MMXX has even created this year, in Roman numerals, as its sigil.

  10. SAFELY GATHERED IN by Sarah Schofield

    “Each one sings sad lullabies that map your route back.”

    What route back, assuming there is one at all? A storage story where all your belongings are now locked down in the ‘cells’ of the Storage Unit catalogue. All distilled into its words. Where each checklist of the storage’s numbered units’ contents tells a different story. Where its slick advertising wording in social-mediaspeak gradually blends with the eschatology of its factual inventories, eventually leaving the last toy monkey’s clashing of cymbals…
    A powerful metaphor for our times, I found. Especially for all the self-combustible garbage said this very day to be stored in UNIT 10 along with its own monkey?

  11. BELLY by Sonia Hope

    A dating couple whose names I have now forgotten are on a trip to a Central London NANDO’s in a silver car they later ABANDON. And a N numbered bus home via a vignette that arguably expands into a proper story along with its title. The story of Somebody inside No-one. Another apposite metaphor, but for what? Anything or nothing else? I keep my real-time powder dry.

  12. THE FURTHER DARK by Jeff Noon & Bridget Penney

    “Isolation cocoon bloody mental lockdown!”

    Published in 2019, this work represents the repetitive minimalism of an Internet existence. Someone again inside No-one. The new form of Invisibility.
    An empty email received with no ‘unsubscribe’ button. Blank. Ovid to Void.
    An obsessive meta for your later times, all your belongings become “trinkets and non-precious objects” stored in the room around you. And you dream co-vividly, I guess, of visiting the pub…
    “…where you find yourself waiting waiting waiting for the tap to stop rinsing soap off your hands.”

    My previous review of Jeff Noon:

  13. SAME SAME BUT DIFFERENT by Stephen Thompson.

    Same Siam, but different. But which “am” is the I as narrator? Now Thailand, to be tied into the narrator’s otherwise fly-fluttering free — as a fateful lockdown in disguise? This immaculate prose, within a traditional story story, allows us to follow the narrator from a fresh ex and EC in UK to the here well-characterised downtroddenness of a Thai refuge of ironic freedom, with indistinguishable skyscraper hotels, whereby all routes for freedom-wanderers lead to a seediness and robbery. Whereby, too, one’s temptress’s belongings are moved from a room’s drawers overnight — but moved to where, if they were ever there in the first place? And as we follow the narrator’s journey deeper within we gradually realise tellingly more about the narrator from subtle narrative hints. A journey on a tUK-tUK, and I somehow wonder, in my usual way, what this would be called if the ‘to’ became a ‘from’ in this pending age of never being able to go back after travelling to somewhere else? Reading this story is like drinking our favourite tipple with a straw.

  14. BACKBONE by K.J. Orr

    “…the thing was to find your way to letting it shift from being a big thing to being a small thing.
    This I thought sage.”

    MMXIX. So, or… so, yes, I must be getting boring now as a book reviewer or a meaning translator obsessed, inasmuch as I do genuinely think this work is the optimum example of a co-vivid dream, the most perfect I have yet come across, “when I no longer know if I was awake or asleep?” Or as I myself often feel, my toes are detached. A narrator’s monologue about her ‘major back surgery’ and her recovery from such an obsession, a big thing once, now hopefully smaller. Memories of a woman patient in for the same operation occupying the opposite bed methodically re-storing, on arrival, her belongings around her, including a rug. A ritual placement of objects, I recall. As this is an evocatively chatty re-placement of bone settings, and other adjustments and refinements, along with re-establishing the mind behind them. The residual incision marks of the surgery looking like sewing little legs that faded before they reached the toes. So. MMXX.

  15. WHALE WATCHING by Diana Powell

    “The film came back to her, in a little plastic box she must post beneath the television.”

    A tantalising parallel with this book’s earlier cinematic ‘Horizontal Walk’ syndrome, in more ways than one, including its onward link from paddling pool to a larger swimming pool! Here the actual cinemarine of the huge whale-hunting ocean itself, as summoned from the Irish Sea, I guess. A woman’s ageing dream of a memory, or vice versa, this being another resonance with our today’s shoal of co-vivid tropes. She recalls seeing the famous Gregory Peck Moby Dick film being shot in her home coastal Welsh community when she was a girl. And the tropes now as traps of shuttling time and memory systems evoked by video rewinds and fast forwards. Till she is humoured by her grandchildren as to what she really saw, black and white as a palimpsest of colour, and mock fabrications of a life as well as a “whole whale” in Wales. And an actor’s wave. Poignant and moving, as well as true to one’s ageing perceptions. At least, I think so. The woman’s old pink hair slide, notwithstanding. And the Moby Dick book itself.

  16. …to more whale watching?


    “He sometimes feels the axis tilt, feels the slide and scramble.”

    …as we all do, today, I guess, to that desiccatory place where fat men tend to slide more easily than others! But not until after a life lived we hope with wit, even saucy hilarity, and skills for connecting things, and you would never guess how a lifetime in the postcard business can bring together topics like William Blake and big buttocks, and a painted landscape’s calm, even the roundabout route between Bognor and Guildford, as well as between Birth and Death. A good tonic, as well as topic, for my first read of the morning.

    My previous reviews of this author:

  17. THE WHITE CAT by NJ Stallard

    “…the black bugs taking over the kitchen.”

    …to match the earlier kitchen slugs in ‘Vashti’ above? No connection with the White Cat, though, on the face of it, the unsavoury looking creature that haunts this beautifully disorientating story, the woman in Villa Aloha and the paying guest in her swimming pool’s outhouse, this guest being another woman who pretends to be the narrator, but later becomes a burglar to beat the villa’s lockdown (later symbolised by a cage for the cat), burgling along with a man friend from work. Connections within the story become arguable, the ability to cross the white spaces between the words of the story, from the desert back to the villa with a homing sense second to none. The man’s specifically mentioned E45 cream and the woman’s later antiseptic mixed with suncream. Then there are my own personal connections with other near concurrent reviews, i.e. with the Hawaiiian story ‘The Guardian’ here together with the white sand and its black bugs and with the stories there by Garrity, Harvey and Schaller. And the swimming pool et al in the Hook story above. From Hook to harpoon? Then to the above white whale?

  18. 3BF6B5DC-49AC-4A07-AEDA-4A2477316C67 MAXINE by Tim Etchells

    “…their wannabe graves the waste-scape that used to be Primark or possibly Lidl, no one seems to remember or care.”

    This wonderful work has a feel of a Zombie Apocalypse as told in near Pidgin Endlish (sic). We follow Maxine in a period piece published in 2019 but with retroactive nostalgia for “viral ads” and “anti-vaxxers” from our new #XX today. Maxine in MMXX? So, I do not wish to bail out from this once now rigged-up scenario since I feel nostalgia for it, as I do for multidenominational churches in 1966, And I certainly enjoy this work’s old-fashioned fiction-way to refer to places in a format like S________. Lies and disinformation in 2019, too. But, in 2019, they now almost feel like truth when compared to the lies and disinformation of #XX! And this period piece is where “New Universities” of the 1960s are still called New. Maxine peeps out of a spy hole in her living space. Food Banks still retained as nostalgia, too. “…earth sand, across the field desert to an oasis.” ‘The Year of the Carpark’. Dark Matter, Erasure, too. ‘Curse of Brexit’, Brexit now in retro mode today with even increased nostalgia! It all started when Bowie died, I guess. Abide with me when singing of any new hope in recent weeks from across the pond. Let’s also hope for a new vaXXine. Or for when we are not stopped on the M1 and told to reverse!

    “…what the pessimist scientists call signs of upcoming extinction.”

    “Last Exit from Narrative.”

  19. DREAMS ARE CONTAGIOUS by Adrian Slatcher

    “They are all having dreams about Donald Trump. I wouldn’t mind, but why now?”

    Of course, this is another period story that was first published in 2019, but here a story that has a projected MMXX ethos that grants me a literary epiphany, as for months now I have been relentlessly running on and on in these reviews about co-vivid dreaming that now seems to bless or curse us as if we all formulate some algorithm of dream bots. I think it was me who originally coined the word ‘co-vivid’. And here we have cryptocurrencies broached. This general theme of contagious dreams is as if MMXIX has now had its constituent ‘I’ removed. From discretely individual to collucidly covidual? And this story has existed without my knowledge till I read it this morning, a delightfully dream-like story with additional references to Jehovah Witnesses, virtual dream consultation methods, video conferencing, viral software and the selling of gig-economy pizzas from door to door. And, of course, Donald Trump whose endgame will possibly never end whatever the signs? Last night, meanwhile, I dreamt of slating a roof and toggling a snib. A lockdown is not a lockdown at all without them.

    My previous review of Adrian Slatcher:

  20. From S________ above, to Sheffield in full…

    WEANING by Helen Mort

    “…and she circled it in biro, marked a neat X.”

    Several Xs in circles, including that in ‘Maxine’. And the Xs in our current year’s Roman numerals. A story of naissance, if not mort, whereby the woman’s symptoms of post- if not anti-natalism are shown by weaning her new son amid the telling diminuendo of the partitions or scenic areas of Sheffield she once knew, the circles on the map emptying of their Xs. A tour of a city and its environs by means of showing us what was now missing, including these missing places’ given names. Even her nipples become freckles. A poignant mood piece involving ‘mood gyms’, “the indifferent sky and slow planes”, and ending with the “pure river” just before reaching the next story that I have seen has already been named Purity… and I now wonder whether we were ever told her son’s name.

  21. My previous review of the next author:

    PURITY by Robert Stone

    “She was lustrous, thought Edward. She was certainly pregnant, he could tell that, and she knew it, and she was very happy.”

    …about Marcia with breasts fit to goggle at, in her naked state. The air bath we all sometimes yearn beyond the mood gym, I guess. But who is the father of this as yet unborn child? Edward, Marcia’s husband, in fact felt himself to be sterile. PURITY is also the name of probably the most famous story by the Anti-Natalist Thomas Ligotti. And in counterpoint to the diminuendo of names, if not of what was named themselves, in the previous story, here someone actually names the wild apes or orangutans in the Auskerry experiment on this secluded part of Orkney. Wild animals, but uncannily human-like. The lateral closing up of species is a powerful undercurrent here, beyond mere donning or doffing of a gorilla suit in Flannery O’Connor. Or the Apes of Idleness in Shakespeare. A scenario, a perfect story of a perfect storm, with two stockmen, named Jack and his “idiot” son Denny, also on the island…
    This is a substantive and very striking story, where our viewpoints continuously change. Who or what, for example, stole the photo of Marcia in swimsuit from the album? One ape sports audio earphones listening to Benjamin Britten, or did I get that wrong? Like the names of places in the previous story, the stockmen “devolved”. The apes filtering in the opposite direction? Is one of the apes asthmatic or mimicking asthma, and I wonder if today we’d ask the same question of Covid? And how do we factor into this perfect storm the world as pending ecological disaster? The whirlpool as an anti-swirl of ugly hair? Who or what learns from whom or what? Who loves or has sex with whom? If obviated by the Anti-Natalism of explicit mastubation? And we reach a truly classic co-vivid dream of Edward’s as he literally conjures one of the large apes from it.
    Monboddo, if not Nobodaddy.

    This anthology is one that has truly inspired me, as you can tell, and, thus interlinked, whether by intention or by something more preternatural, it takes power from each of its species of narration and projecting pictures and thoughts beyond themselves, even if they all remain artful discrete stories in themselves. Bridging somehow one year to the next.


  22. Pingback: Like a Fever – Tim Etchells | THE DES LEWIS GESTALT REAL-TIME REVIEWS

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