Best British Short Stories 2021



Edited by Nicholas Royle

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

Stories by Tom Bromley, Yasmine Lever, Meave Haughey, Simon Okotie, AJ Ashworth, Uschi Gatward, Emma Bolland, Gary Budden, Mel Pryor, Hilaire, Alice Jolly, Julia Armfield, Roberta Dewa, John Foxx, Jen Calleja, Douglas Thompson, Isha Karki, Matthew Turner, Josephine Galvin, Iphgenia Baal.

For anyone interested in modern short stories, I would be grateful if they could please mention to others my endless journey into the stories of Elizabeth Bowen whom I consider to be the greatest experimental and traditional pioneer of these. I don’t think any reviewer has travelled such a public journey before, with amazing discoveries along the way, including her many elBOWs! This includes her collected, uncollected and once previously unpublished stories. I am currently about two shadowy thirds through this literary adventure, and it started here:

My real-time review of BBSS 2021 will appear in the comment stream below in due course…

35 thoughts on “Best British Short Stories 2021

  1. RINGS by Tom Bromley

    “…a lower ring round Old Sarum.”

    Or Old Saturn, a significant heavily transited blight on my natal chart, but it is a significant but brief literary experience, if not, in hindsight, a hopeful one, when judging which New Year has just come into the Ascendant… as a narrator with an out-of-shape midriff, especially after last night’s drinking, is sort of jogging these fields, a land evoked like a skilful sketch out of which we eventually discern an antlered deer, and then a dog with its owner’s tennis ball to be thrown, an owner with her own sad rings. And what will be will be. Be it Cause-and-Effect or Synchronicity, something will transcend hindsight, I fully expect. Be it Free Will or Fate, the ball will land where it will land, and be brought back.

  2. …from one retrocausality to another? —
    The next story is one I reviewed in its context last year as follows …

    December 11, 2020 at 9:08 am 

    DEFINITELY NOT by Yasmine Lever

    “, like an orchid planted in the middle of a tar pit.”

    Or a tarred over video camera lens like the tarred lockdown ironically in SEE-THROUGH above? Whatever the case, this is a compelling turn each page of a young sexual couple in a series of modernised Hopper paintings that belie our ‘streaming’ age, a couple we see originally as attracted to each other, playfully having sex with the help of a video camera. The latter his idea. A story of an eventual sexual revenge porn? But at whose instigation? This story is believable and makes you pick over one’s own prejudices as to what.happened and what future evolving implications later arose as an invisible retrocausality. Some very neat evocative writing. A loooooooong story for this book, one that ribbons or spools out with a fascination for the dust that we all eventually become: the unavoidable triggering of blocked events?

  3. … from earlier Jungian Synchroniciy to Collective Consciousness? –
    I reviewed the next work in its context last year, as follows:

    December 14, 2020 at 12:48 pm 

    From stains and spillages and inner endo-growths to the next story’s palimpsest leasowes and pastures over flood plains — and a serial or phantom pregnancy with a breaking of waters while already milking a baby … the waters of tears or of viewing tiers (inside the library) to mark the beginning of new life, new thoughts?

    “Will she never be free of violent sickness and breasts that leak and drip?”

    The Reservoir by Meave Haughey

    “There were entirely imagined cities, he’d told her once, invented by cartographers to obscure what was really there.”

    A story that includes our co-vivid dreams of water…

    This is a telling, textured portrait, again sororal, of a woman observing her own palimpsest of body as self and a cartography of thoughts upon Jungian levels of collective consciousness. 

    And a local post office with the prow of a ship as an objective-correlative for the hope we all need. That leased inner reser-voir of becoming clair-voyant…

  4. BINDINGS by Simon Okotie

    A Proustian-tentacular realisation of the reader’s ability to release him or whoever it is from the bindings of such a vignette’s prose, and remarkably, nay, miraculously, this rings a three-dimensional triangulated truth with yesterday’s angled Elbow-talk (here) vis à vis another Nicholas Royle book and with my chance review only an hour ago of a story called THE CONFIDANTE (here) before reading this Okotie! Reader and writer as first person plural release, a mutual synergy’s confidante without whose space this work would still be tying itself into knotted interiority.

    My previous release of this author:

  5. LEATHER by AJ Ashworth

    “It is November.”

    …being that Noseason I always find is due to last forever — as if reflected in a metafictional portrait that thus extends its life? Although this story disarmingly uses the word ‘metafictional’ about itself, it is not at all. It is as if it’s a story that is aware of itself, its own words inserted like prehensile leathery letters as a bookmark rash for marking the blank pages with. Not only a palimpsest of italicised extracts and non-italic narration but also harbouring the life of some ancient witchcraft legend layered within them. A punitive lesson or even a cure (the latter word used advisedly) for those kleptomaniac women of yore in York who stole things, a crime worse than a review plagiarising the work that it reviews or cleans up after! Worse even than spoiling such a story with spoilers or extraneous bird life. Worse even than wildly grandstanding with what the story gives of itself. Best for me simply to season it with sincere condiments and get my coat. (Well, not exactly my coat.)

  6. BACKGAMMON by Uschi Gatward

    “I didn’t brings flats.”

    Two flat tranches or slices of life. Lara, with whom I identified, her legs stretched out in a pub atmosphere, and an ailing leg later, went to their place for dinner to judge their paint colour choices, Lara being, I guess, a Bowenesque Shadowy Third as narrator of obnoxious Dave (who drives to Tesco (for back gammon?) after a skinful (unless he walked, as Lara was effectively made to do to the bus stop) and who talks about his sperm motility and on the second tranche or slice of life later gets in a Backgammon rage with Lara) and narrator, too, of his partner as the TV talent show watching woman named Suzy. I got in a similar rage after losing the temper of this story. Not a way to treat Shadowy Thirds like Lara, she thought.

    My previous shadowing of this author:

  7. 469C5E7C-C7E2-4E36-96B0-A7E844572139

AM / THOUGHT / ALWAYS by Emma Bolland

    “Now I know that time is a cone, a different kind of furling in which I can see everything and through which I fall and will never stop falling.”

    This is – of course – a showily abstruse monologue by a defiantly, even petulantly, unorthodox ghost taunting if not haunting the man who once stalked or haunted her as part of some relationship they had when she was alive, a ghost who was a woman whose wake the man had just attended. But he is not important enough for her even to taunt, haunt or put make up on for, a story somehow timed into my latest obsessions in my book reviews over recent months with Cone Zero, Zeno’s Paradox and Null Immortalis. Well, of course. I guess the coins placed on dead eyes (especially the gold coin as Danake) are examples of objective-correlatives rather than symbols or metaphors. Too bored to say anything more about it. Although I loved it while I was reading it!


      I recently came across the author’s tweet HERE* and I genuinely feel that this tweet is a very clever review of my review of the story as based on the story itself, ‘petulantly’ and partially quoting me out of context, as this tweet seems to do, and also seemingly ignoring that my ‘being bored and getting my coat’ was meant as a provocative reflection of the story’s ending itself!
      *I did indeed love this story while I was reading it, as I said above.*
      Note (re the make-up reference that the author makes big play of in the tweet!) the story itself says: “Why his scrutiny of the ‘metamorphoses’ of my hair, my lips, my clothes? As a literary man, why was his reading of me so reductive?” And there is much more I could mention at the interface of my review, the author’s review of my review and the story itself.
      Assuming I have not misinterpreted the author’s review of my review and equally assuming that the author has not misinterpreted my review of the story (this would not be the first time that such authorial misinterpretation may have happened with my sometimes quirky reviews of fiction!), yes, assuming all this, I say ‘bravo!’ to the tweet linked above !

      * Someone reviewed my contribution to BBSS2021:
      ‘a showily abstruse monologue… not important enough for her to even put makeup on for… too bored to say anything else about it…’
      My work here is done.

  8. From my review above…
    And what will be will be. Be it Cause-and-Effect or Synchronicity, something will transcend hindsight, I fully expect. Be it Free Will or Fate, the ball will land where it will land, and be brought back.

    WHAT NEVER WAS by Gary Budden

    “…that empty cosmic space, my tendrils dangling and intertwining with Stefan’s, for all time.”

    An engaging story of stolen futures: a woman narrator, as it turns out, from Bexhill and who later visits the Horniman Musiem in South London, a different stamping ground from her London’s north. I have known both this museum and Bexhill during my life’s experience, although I have never swiped dating apps, nor, obviously, ‘clicked’ with someone that I might have met through such a means. I did empathise, however, with this woman, a haunter of canals and reservoirs in the London area, and, for whatever reason, looking into skips of waste outside houses, and finding there one day an old photograph that speaks, I guess, of new futures for lost ones. New lives for old.
    From her mother’s death in a ‘black sea’ to an image of herself as rusting Soviet cosmonaut metal, to at last clicking with someone called Stefan, but whose death means he is then enabled to subsist forever as what I call Null Immortalis or Zeno’s Time Paradox, thus creating a sort of museum of inner organs, things like sea life preserved forever as our slippery selves, a forever paradox symbolised by this story’s incantatory refrain of possibly endless types of swipeable, smileable men.

    My previous reviews of this author:

  9. MAMAN by Mel Pryor

    “Did I lose half a daughter when I gained half a dog?”

    “Valerie says that the way we measure time is central to our identity.”

    Somehow those two sentences belong to each other, although they are separated by over two pages. The story of a forty something woman — Valerie being the name of this woman’s unseen shrink as financed by this woman’s mother, and Madeleine (a look alike from the film Mamma Mia) is this woman’s twenty something daughter who brings her boyfriend and a friend called Lily to stay and then goes out to get some diet Coca Cola, while the woman and this boyfriend cook together… we shall call this woman Maman after the sculpture in Hamburg that I have just looked at on Google with awestruck eyes, an art object matching the themes of mites and monsters … and more. An amazing personal coincidence on my part surrounds Clarice Lispector, probably the most amazing serendipity since I started gestalt real-time reviewing all those years ago and, what is more, I dare not directly cross-reference it as you will simply not believe me, but for those diligent enough to research it, this coincidence is related to the story in another book by a different author that I reviewed immediately before this one today. I was so amazed, I felt this coincidence to be somehow preternaturally meaningful (honestly) with this Pryor story then reaching its destined vanishing-point, a moment in time that suited this provocatively engaging study of a troubled mother in interface with her equally troubled daughter, involving the abrupt quirk of any turning-point, in fact, here, two turning-points: two touches upon a woman’s breast as separated by time as well as pages. And I thought of what carapace must overshadow us all while we mindlessly watch what modern people have as generational interactions in frothy films in preference to reading subtle literary works about similar people, a work, like this one, with literary quotes and minutiae as moments. If not massive minutes.
    And Naples as nipples! The latter crawling with unseen mites.

    My previous reviews of Clarice Lispector:

  10. Pingback: Minutiae as Moments | The Des Lewis Gestalt Real-Time Reviews

  11. I reviewed the next story when it was first published, as follows…


    THE RED SUITCASE by Hilaire

    “He counted the waves as they broke on the shore, finally drifting off into the nineties.”

    Or the nines? Meanwhile, this story — and I mean this as an enormous item of praise — reminds me of being within a William Trevor story, with ginger nuts, a tea cosy, and reading yesterday’s newspaper today — William Trevor, the complete canon (!) of whose stories I recently real-time reviewed, as linked from here. But, here, though, we have the unique atmosphere of Hilaire’s One End Street, near the sea, in a community with a genius loci of gossips, and a low grade guest house that requires Dougie’s mother to put up a campbed in the sitting room so as to house any guest in her own bedroom. And B arrives, unusually, for guests, off-season, with a red suitcase, and although we are given her full forename, she is ever afterward referred to as B, as if truncated even further than the name of an author who by-lines herself only by a forename? Those forenames that used to be called Christian. We gradually gather the character of B as well as of Dougie, and the unspoken, never-ignited relationship between them. The cassette player’s hiss and its quavering music, the dreams B might read within him, and his signalman’s hat he leaves outside her room as an unspoken loan to ward off the rainy grey days by the cold sea. Business as usual, not constipated at all, he tells his mother… A signalman with a signal upon Goodman’s cat’s whisker of that earlier crystal set above, and upon another jarring in the night, the story above entitled ‘Signal’. A dead seal, not a fish. Or was the signal a reminder of his earlier job, where red indicated danger? Two-way slippers on a single track of sleepers? With only one end.

  12. It is as if the Louise Bourgeois ‘Maman’ above has become a version of the BVM as a carapace of faulty ladders within a fog of smoke…


    “A knot of staircase and corridors, inside and out, wooden and metal. How might you find your way in and out? Yet he could see the fire escape…”

    Also it is as if some overseeing apotheosis of a William Trevor has written a highly readable and empathisably frightening suspense story where fiction is its own version of revealed truth, featuring an Irish community of yore, where the young girls in a convent are trapped by sudden fire from its laundry and whatever the good intentions of the locals — amid leaky hoses and other shortcomings – many girls perish, some jumping to their death. Some even blamed it on its amounts of floor polish helping the spreading fire escape. But really God and His nuns kept them still shut in by not wanting the men to see the girls in their nighties? You couldn’t make it up. Although I felt it to be unmissably true.

  13. Again from that overshadowing Maman with long legs above to this Bowendigo of EL-BOWs (‘elbows back against the sea wall’ and ‘clutches at his elbows’) and other word associations, well, this story’s title gives away the joke about cannibalism already! Even if you’ve not heard it before.

    WENDIGO by Julia Armfield

    “— a spider caught beneath the rim of a glass. They were loping creatures once, the long strides of giants moving over sleeping cities.”

    I will not spoil this story any more, but simply say it is a genuine masterpiece in my book. So oblique, so utterly clear, too, with things picked out by all the right words, as I tantalisingly grab at its synonyms and associations along with its imposing latency of horror and mythic images, much of this story being couched in romcom conversations from the wireless — and beachcombing where I live, amid today’s “first insanity of Christmas lighting.” Preparatory to wending my way back in.

    My previous review of this author:

  14. I reviewed the next story when it was first published, as follows…


    HIDE by Roberta Dewa

    “piece by piece I go”

    …as ever in real-time, by the strict rule that my reviews are those based on my first reading of any work. But I can already see this work probably needs several readings, free verse with bird names and engaging evocations, free verse as prose, with arguably complex backstories of childhood and beyond as we follow the author as she conjures a narrative point of view of ‘she’ in interface with ‘you’ and ‘he’, in visits to a bird hide and reading the sightings board in that hide where another has left impressions of birds or other poetic emotions of ‘I’ and another ‘you’ added within this gestalt, plus a school’s salacious bike shed and today a bike, and a memory of a house, a possible marriage and a new relationship or not. All overlapping or potentially dove-tailed. Notwithstanding the ”nemo hiding here”. That made oblique sense of it all for me. Worth pursuing.

    “, geese out early honk across the thin wash sky”

  15. THE NEBULA by John Foxx

    Although I have no idea how he made it, there is a nebula in his room complete with suns, stars and intricate gravities. He must be some form of Mad Scientist or First Mover I guess, with a fiancé so-called, with whom he has now fallen in love, and he has bought her a new dress for her birthday and after her putting it on to wear he planned to show her his nebula. I can honestly imagine Elizabeth Bowen writing of such a powerful twirl of a tactile dress, the results of which I shall not divulge here. Nor shall I say whether it was a sad or happy ending. It depends how many people lived on that nebula, I guess. Assuming it wasn’t a nebula UNABLE to bear life in the first place.

  16. EDIT HISTORY by Jen Calleja

    An engaging sort of editable Wikipedia containing info capsules upon each of the Islets, an archipelago in mutual synergy with Christopher Priest’s Dream one, here any dreams being infiltrated or toughened by hardcore realities of the world with which they are in osmosis. One islet is rumoured to be Hitler’s exile venue, another where generations are in apprenticeship-loop. And many more. One is a single purpose Praiser Islet. I feel, immodestly, that my seasoned gestalt real-time reviewing and this ‘story’ were made for each other, a Venn diagram or palimpsest upon the other. Each of its readers are part of the collusive triangulation of coordinates — something I have long tried to foster.

  17. Pingback: Isletsodes | The Des Lewis Gestalt Real-Time Reviews

  18. I read the next story by DOUGLAS THOMPSON when it was first published, as follows, in its then context…



    “What are carpets for if not brushing things under?”

    547F11F2-9121-4352-BC4B-BADF5B287962Not an elephant in the room, but St Elmo’s fire? The narrator’s father’s misstep here extrapolated eloquently and poignantly, his misstep with so-called romance, to the detriment of his wife and sons… This is the depiction by one of these sons of his father’s life, a father as misanthrope, misogynist, would be poet, stickler for standards, inconsistent, demobbed from the Royal Navy following the Second World War. At times an account of the father that is embittered, at others, stoical, rarely understanding. Along with the to and fro objective-correlative of the sea. I sense this whole book is a unique blend of autobiography and of fiction that is also an autobiography of sorts. Here, his mother’s later extended hospital stay leads to meeting, among the old ladies around her, one who tells him what is effectively this book’s title story and looks to be of novella length. I wonder if she lived long enough to tell it all?

    My previous reviews of this author:

  19. From Hide to Hair, via Islets…

    HAIR by Isha Karki

    A disarming theme-and-variations on Rapunzel with many words I could not ratiocinate. But good job! — the musical and co-vivid dreamy side of me could now manage to gain much tantalising meaning by the sheer aforementioned Calleja osmosis. And I had a strong sense of the Maman image shown above on this page having braids of hair instead of legs, and a Man climbing to be born towards a “Ma told her the secret of it” – “at the point her thighs met.”

  20. LOOM by Matthew Turner

    Loom or Loos? “It’s looming”, or its looming Loop as Olian? The reader as stitched into a gestalt. This highly textured prose is incredibly quotable and I am tempted to quote it all, so I have barely quoted it at all. My mind is now stitched indeed into this story’s architecture like gold or money, and it’s an Interzone of Edgelands and Englands. Interiorities as rats or reflections. Social media moments. Dunes and Roots. Hidden spaces. Indentations in the wall of my attentiveness reaching their tentacles inward. A man who talks with a security guard about the house he is said to be employed to keep its decay at bay in the no man’s land that new ley-line diaspora of social movements have remaindered. While the guard keeps tabs on the man some authorities seek, the man who once owned it or had it built. Olian. O, I am. Oubliette.
    “Ornamental Psychosis” is a condition readily found in Elizabeth Bowen fiction texture. And this wonderfully rarefied schism of a story arguably encapsulates what I have said in this review above and elsewhere about the process of gestalt real-time reviewing archiliterature and its so-called words, to triangulate the coordinates of all the readers hidden in hidey-holes as the covidual self. Internet and Global Warnings, notwithstanding. The fact of the TS Eliot centre masquerading as neural periphery, also factored in, as into the world’s shifting gradients or flooring-beam skies, too.

  21. GOING DOWNHILL by Josephine Galvin

    “She had read somewhere that the reverse of being loved is not hate, it’s indifference…”

    And now I’ve read it, too! At first I thought I was indeed indifferent to this story and that it was sending this very book downhill in its now dying pages, as I followed this woman’s attritional bus journey. Somehow too smart looking for travelling on buses but she is also someone who has been accretively fallen out of love with by her partner Rick, as she witnesses from the bus all the depressive signs of life passing by, time and time and time again, in a typical city syndrome with ordinary folk and urban decay. (Here Manchester). And we confidently infer what has happened. And we think we know what type of trip she is making, without even telling her grown up daughter, let alone Rick, along with her flight bag. But it took on a sort of paradoxically interesting slow motion kind of positive dreariness as I made it over as a story with an almost startling hindsight worthy of the quotes I picked out to share my review. Upholders of the literary faith, without anyone or anything losing face or faith over the matter, least of all this whole book. So I abandoned my gestalt philosophy just for this story’s sake… or does it mean that this story made such a philosophy even more justifiable? A constructive dilemma, I guess.
    “Sometimes it’s just small things, seemingly inconsequential if inspected in isolation, that cumulatively topple a whole structure.” – and that’s not just her bus!

    My previous reviews of this author:

  22. The book’s coda as, presumably, a once discrete work of fiction…

    99 CUSTOMER JOURNEY HORROR by Iphgenia Baal

    somehow clinches by uncollusive correlation what I just said about the previous story’s journey!


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