The Penguin Book of the Contemporary British Short Story


Edited by Philip Hensher 2018

Stories by A.L. Kennedy, Tessa Hadley, Kazuo Ishiguro, Jackie Kay, Graham Swift, Jane Gardam, Ali Smith, Neil Gaiman, Martin Amis, China Miéville, Peter Hobbs, Thomas Morris, David Rose, David Szalay, Irvine Welsh, Lucy Caldwell, Rose Tremain, Helen Oyeyemi, Leone Ross, Helen Simpson, Zadie Smith, Will Self, Gerard Woodward, James Kelman, Lucy Wood, Hilary Mantel, Eley Williams, Sarah Hall, Mark Haddon, Helen Dunmore.

My previous reviews of the BEST BRITISH SHORT STORIES series (2011-2021):

When I read this book in 2022, my thoughts will appear in the comment stream below…

35 thoughts on “The Penguin Book of the Contemporary British Short Story

  1. SPARED by A. L. Kennedy

    “In the fold of each elbow and on each shin he’d grown an irritable patch of crimson pinpricks.”

    The story of Greg, splayed, pared, word-elbowed onto the page, with inferences only readers can make from authorial implications, and what an astounding synchronicity! The second for me today (here).
    You see, I just finished a story called ‘A Short History of Hairdressing’ that is in inadvertent synergy with this Kennedy story by gestalt-dint of my having read the two stories together, the other story being the one that I reviewed by chance about an hour or so ago HERE about Gregory and his wife ‘sucking his cock’ in the shower and going to the hairdressers (like in this story), and the end of the world is also nigh — as it truly is near the end of the world today in my own real-time (look at the date above).
    Greg, who has ‘married’ or ‘moved’, meets Amanda in the cheese shop queue, and he compares cheesemongers to dentists (or vets), as Gregory elsewhere not unsimilarly compares hair barbers, and both are indeed ‘married’, but Greg has a guilty affair with Amanda, who wants to see it all and not be hidden under the duvet or the darkness, perhaps to see if Greg’s pubes have gone grey like Gregory’s?
    The eschatological ending I inferred for both stories and the mutual scatology of Gregory’s ‘ear crust’ and Greg’s elbow rash, well, it gives me faith that, serendipitously, it’s not the end of the world at all… and we’ll see eventually if I’m right as real-time rolls by. No need, meantime, for Greg to have made that journey into Elizabeth Bowen’s “Macabre North” as her version of its Magnetic norm, I guess. Bring the wire down, I dare you!

  2. FUNNY LITTLE SNAKE by Tessa Hadley

    “I thought, But the whole world, the whole of real life, is spread out underneath him. And he’s up there all alone in his own clever head. Don’t you know what I mean?”

    …and so Marise has her own wisdom about Gilbert as gestalt, as I do about my own gestalt real-time reviewing from an ivory tower of separate bespoke moments of reading passion. This story is one such reading passion, as I easily visualise Valerie and Gilbert (together as an item, she as a sort of wife and a weekend-temporary step-mother) and their dealing with the visit from Gilbert’s ‘feral’ nine-year old daughter, Robyn. You can even smell the girl if not the new pyjamas that Valerie gets for her during the visit. The constricting snow, and the clues of time and place of a certain England with phone boxes and telegrams. And the relationship between this couple. And our growing knowledge of Robyn’s real mother, Marise, and the latter’s new partner called Jamie. All these characters (and any backstories) really live off the page: figures that we also wield within the texture of the words.
    For some fictional device reason, Valerie alone is required to travel to return Robyn to her real mother after Robyn’s visit finishes, returning her to the Marise and Jamie whom Valetie has never met before. But the most important characters seem to be Robyn’s two obsessive ‘dollies’, and they know more than anyone about what really happens beyond the fiction’s veneer, knowing more than the reader, even more than the author does, and these seeming facts mark this story out as something special. Footprints that vanish in more snow, though? There is so much more otherwise to tell you about the perceived motives and events and connections, the bear act, the wooden Noah’s Ark, the eponymous snake as another ‘spy’, the zoo animal smell &c.

  3. COME RAIN OR COME SHINE by Kazuo Ishiguro

    “‘You figure it out! You get on your plane and I’ll get on mine. And we’ll see which one crashes!’”

    A genuinely unmissable Ishiguro work that healed my stitches. It stems from a man asking his long term male friend to take over his female partner, a plot device that also acts as a trigger for a quite different story Yesterday by Murakami, reviewed before I read this Ishiguro, having happened synchronistically to review it (here), while this Ishiguro itself is a truly page-turning story by the writer who wrote The Unconsoled novel, my most favourite ever novel by anyone, even Jane Austen, and, what is more, I thankfully remembered my own passion for Frankie Vaughan’s Green Door that clinched the hilarious point of this story’s ending for me.
    A man’s need, too, to iron out the pages of a lady’s private notebook, if not with a rolling pin that is also mentioned in it, reminded me of the ironing board I always carry around with me wherever I go in case I need it.
    I dare not tell you why or how this story really works, nor even hint at the nature of some of the events and motives of the triangulation of characters as shadowy thirds of a whole, characters, indeed, from my own university generation in England. So, I shall thus leave it hazy enough to tempt you to read it, and, yes, smartly say — in honour of a student stew’s pong of dog — Hey, Joe!

    My earlier review of The Unconsoled:

  4. Pingback: Come Rain or Come Shine | The Des Lewis Gestalt Real-Time Reviews (from 2008)


    “…did the ironing, wired the plugs,…”

    …and had a moustache that could have been dealt with by electrolysis. The eponymous characters P & C form a gradual realisation in the reader as to their natures, one adventurous in cooking, the other who does, inter alia, the things above, a realisation that is politically both correct and incorrect with regard to their relationship, and if I tell you any more about them, that would spoil your enjoyment of such a gradual realisation of their characters, the job they do outside of their home, and what treatment they suffer as a result of their intrinsic relationship… suffer, yes, but then, due to such suffering, everything seems to be ironed out as well as somehow woven into a close knit pattern of love unplugged.

  6. REMEMBER THIS by Graham Swift

    An attritionally deadpan portrait of a newly married couple of husband and wife tempting fate at such a young loving moment in time, even an often sexually penned fate, threatening a red-hot Priapic poker through it for such attritional fiction-creativity about young love, a fiction evoking the enticement by the wife’s short, rain-squeaky, brolly-stretched skirt, and, yes, a fiction about such a young loving couple tempting fate by making their death wills while attending a solicitor whom the husband visualises at home with an imaginary wife called Sylvia. This fiction is a satirical love letter to romcoms and toasted cheese. But it all clicked into place by means of the very last few words of this fiction, showing that it was meant to be read on April Fool’s Day, i.e. today, in my own real-time, as it happens to be! Somehow I should always remember this chance-synchronicity of reading, for the first time, this duly methodical story in its due running order in the contents of this book, yes, today of all days (look at the date above), as it has turned out to be!
    I should ‘bank’ this work and its timely concomitant feat of gestalt real-time reviewing even if later it won’t matter at all when I am eventually sick / depressed or tragically bereaved or dying myself or just dead!

  7. Pingback: A satirical love letter to romcoms and toasted cheese… | The Des Lewis Gestalt Real-Time Reviews (from 2008)

  8. DANGERS by Jane Gardam

    With the lady’s name above, I could have predicted this brief story was about a grandma or granny, and, here, as I dowse it with one of my reviewing rods, I discover a six-year old boy’s granny, he visiting her from the city of Boston (where there were no wild animals) to the granny’s place on a country lane in England (where there were.) I somehow reached its root of meaning with my rod as time’s arrow. Thus, I had to open myself to it first, by living dangerously and disclosing this book’s innards from within a closed solipsistic I to a broken V.
    Innards that are cream not water.

  9. STORY


    “Mairead didn’t like English — it had no proper answers —“

    I may read this story that will be a series of story beginnings formed into partial palimpsests not unlike a game of Consequences about an ordinary house fly and about all the copies — collected in England’s now diminishing secondhand bookshops — of The Great Gatsby as Gestalt. If I say any more about its plot and its human characters, that would spoil the ingenious revelation of this Ali Smith story, especially in the light of what I often do with fiction works by trying to gather their ideas together and then floating the result into precarious existence as my proffered proper answer.

  10. TROLL BRIDGE by Neil Gaiman

    “There are books I haven’t read yet.”

    So, I am not ready for my final visit to Troll Bridge, however big-headed I feel my head to be. I need to read more and pass what I read on to you with my ideas attached. This story is about someone who is not me, someone who thinks about how many railways vanished in the sixties. Yet I was there at the time alongside Dr Beeching, but now, like this story itself, I am unsure where the old universal railtrack path led so lonelily, so it’s always a surprise when I come to Troll Bridge again, and never, unlike the character in this story, accompanied by someone else. I did not like The Stranglers much anyway. Never dreamed of fairyland, never had a typical teenage life at all. I still live where I live with my wife even at such an advanced age as I have now reached, and I wonder when the trail to the Troll’s finally ‘eating my life’ will entail it reading any unread books and to tell you about them on my behalf. I never read this story before. So it got under the wire for reading, I guess, just in time. Saves the Troll the trouble.
    Something otherworld about this story, perhaps without it ever knowing where or what that other world was or is. The rocks still glow like rainbows in the dark, though.

    My previous review of this author:

  11. Pingback: Partial Palimpsests of Fairyland and Story | The Des Lewis Gestalt Real-Time Reviews

  12. THE UNKNOWN KNOWN by Martin Amis

    I don’t fully understand the various unknowns and knowns in this 2007 piece (why for example does the narrator have several wives and is shocked by the way women dressed in America?) but it seems by dint of gestalt seeking that it is worthy of being pulled out of the drawer today, as the 20twenties grind on and what has already happened in them, not forgetting Trump and Brexit earlier, once a pair of unknown unknowns in the roles they took on… and the anger and lies and denial and news management. We all tell lies now, without realising. And 9/11 never happened.
    All this culminating today, maybe, if anything happens in the next 24 hours ….but not wanting to tempt fate or any planted compulsive retards in our midst. And the ‘potent cough-drops’.

    Please forgive two sizeable quotes from this work…

    “Even as we enter the age of cosmic and perhaps eternal war, it remains remarkable: the nuanced symbiosis between East and West.”

    “– the entire planet resembles a pulsing bullseye. The continents themselves hang there like great soft underbellies, almost pleading to be strafed and scorched and slashed.”


    The intricate contriving of an academic article that describes a medical condition. A striving toward literary humour by creating a conceit of words themselves as equivalents to musical earworms. A novel story, if a story at all.

    My previous reviews of this author: and

  14. WINTER LUXURY PIE by Peter Hobbs

    “…rewriting all the names as anagrams —“

    …as I honestly do when I am reviewing books, so as to help upload their hidden meanings and synchronicities! But this one resists such an approach, as if it had sniffed out my trying to fathom out the meaningless title and the equally meaningless subtitles and the words (that I have not yet googled, if I ever do!) that defeat my own otherwise vast vocabulary. However, I was captivated by this female narrator, one of triplets, the other two being male — captivated indeed by her account of their farm life, their parents and grandparents in this farming heritage in a wild America (not wild in the sense of the Wild West, but in an aberrant sense of a so-called Contemporary British story gauchely attempting to evoke America!)
    I cannot do justice to this work’s offbeat, disarming effect on the reader, except to let you know one of the brothers counted numbers in Urdu. Left-handed, too, as in both gauche and sinister alike, I guess. And the various quaint or autistic backstories (e.g. a grandma climbing trees at 95) are engagingly believable, even if the front ‘stories’ that the narrator tells us about turn out to be wildly far-fetched. And none of the family liked talking on homophones. And we all know now how to cure a broken heart, if not how to transplant tomatoes to Halloween pumpkins.

    “‘Words change everything,’ she said.”

  15. MEN

    Left-handed, too, as in gauche and sinister alike, I guess. And the various quaint or autistic backstories…” – from my review of WINTER LUXURY PIE above, segueing with…

    ALL THE BOYS by Thomas Morris

    A stag party in Dublin that’ll be to your guffawing pleasure and poignancy should it pan out the way it says it will as based on this guided tour of its events and men, London men and Caerphilly men, flying out there, the groom in the care of his father, and one who was thought to be gay and another who actually was gay, gauche or gay, and their escapades, including walking through Dublin most of them dressed as potatoes, the groom as a female Irish riverdancer, a visit to Croke Park, and the constant strict rule of only holding your pint in your left hand! A sinister superstition?
    The homecoming: a slow nursing of pints and the ‘killing of time.’

  16. F62CDC64-8CA9-4909-A314-6EFA92AF21E5A NICE BUCKET

    The di Chirico calm of Urbia, as out-measured by working men who eff, cuss, drink tea and ogle legs, those men who build ramps or speed bumps as sleeping policemen for calming traffic if not calming sparrow squabbles, a gritty hands-on, even toes-off, ritual that provides, via the amalgam of time and asphalt, a glimpse of something tantalisingly intrinsic to existence itself, something that only fiction truths can supply? A ramp to slow our progress, thus to allow us to make each of our paces ever half of the one before by dint of Zeno’s Paradox. One man seems more sensitive than the others and buys his own nice bucket to perfect the task in hand, however that task may be questioned as to usefulness or sense. An installation of found art crystallised in the eternally sacred moment by someone who cares where the body-mind reaches its balance of spiritual aesthetics and hardcore utility.

    My previous reviews of this author:

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

  18. Pingback: Penguin Books of British Short Stories | The Des Lewis Gestalt Real-Time Reviews

  19. CHAPTER 2 (from ALL THAT MAN IS) by David Szalay

    “The words, flat and matter-of-fact, just seem to escape him.”

    Indeed, these words are larger than life, at grotesque length, too, especially when compared to the other more succinct stories so far in this book, and this work is irresistibly looser-limber, too, but often quite off-putting in its matter-of-fact, deadpan (with a hint of Porkies hot sauce) way, nay, wildly deadflesh-disarming and bloated, even if with one mention of an elbow.
    It is the story of a Frenchman who is a loser, ofttimes right wanker, called Bérnard, who was sacked recently from his uncle’s windows company and abandoned by his loser friend to go on holiday alone to Cyprus in a deadbeat hotel in the deadbeat part of a resort, with grey soup and microwaves in its dining-room. And he meets two over-large women from Northampton, mother and daughter — and the rest is not left to your imagination!
    I wonder why this work was included here. To make the connection, I assumed, between Iron Man 3 in this story with Iron Man 3 in the previous Thomas Morris story above!
    But, actually, the whole work was disarmingly compelling in an entertainingly grotesque way, with some neat characterisations and some striking turns of phrase. In fact, frankly, I don’t think I will ever be able to forget it, especially the characters and the place where it happened! It also somehow seemed to have an increasingly half-hidden avuncular wisdom about the lifestyles it was depicting.

    “And then the hit crashes into its chorus.”


    “When will it be over? When will this nightmare end?”

    At first, I nearly abandoned this work as an artsy fartsy male version of Molly Bloom’s Monologue by Joe with his crudities to the nth power of the most obscene and homophobic. This chap Joe, even in the flow of his own elided dialect, is most literary and witty deep down, though, with a knowing look in his eyes that we can only spot in hindsight by dint of what happens.
    His altar boy days, his kilt complex, his best mate’s teasing, his best mate’s twin sister, after Joe’s brutal molesting of those ‘queers’ he thinks he hates, and Joe’s dicky heart when plumbing the various depths of his best mate’s pretty but lookalike sister; you would not credit what I have to tell you, including the premature spilling of spoilers galore. It is simply a startling horror story, a stiff’s stiffness of what one believes about oneself in the light of life’s stigmata, with a mischievous twist at the end concerning the arch frigging over of an angel. Earthbound and happy, a Swiftian fable with its own modest proposal of an amoral.

  21. Pingback: This work is supremely something special.  | The Gestalt Real-Time Reviews of Books

  22. Pingback: Synchronicity rampant… | The Gestalt Real-Time Reviews of Books

  23. Pingback: LET ME COUNT THE TIMES: Martin Amis | Nemonymous Night

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