It’s been a bumper year for short story collections, from heavyweights (such as Tessa Hadley and Jeffrey Eugenides) to buzzed-about debuts (like Tom Hanks and Jenny Zhang). While most of these books are superb, these three were the standout short story collections.
What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah
There is something so unique and remarkable about this debut from prize winning Nigerian writer Lesley Nneka Arimah, that in a year of brilliant short story collections, it stands out on its own because of its sheer ingenuity. What It Means hooks you in from the very first page and doesn’t let go until the very end. One of the best things about reading this electrifying debut is that because of the versatility of writing, you are never sure where Lesley will take her stories next. From surrealism to Southern Gothic and realism, the stories in this book seamlessly extend across different genres and styles.
Every story is unique and the only common threads between the stories are that most of them are based in Nigeria and the US and that they are mostly about women and their complex yearnings. Often the stories start backwards, which, rather than killing the suspense, adds a sense of urgency and inevitability to the the narrative. From utopian parables to fables and horror grounded in psychological realism, Lesley has concocted a flavorful, mesmerizing collection of short stories. This book has already gathered several awards and is on most of 2017’s Best of the Year lists, and this is one of the few times where the hype is justified. Most short story collections tend to get monotonous after a while, but What It Means rewards re-reading. This is an enchanting work of fiction which deftly tackles subjects both timeless and universal.
The King is Always Above the People by Daniel Alarcón
This spectacular short story collection, long listed for this year’s National Book Awards, reinvents immigrant narratives. These are stories about immigrants and wanderers in high stakes situations. The stories feature Latin American families, L.A. gang members, and disenchanted individuals with strikingly original narratives. Slyly political with a dark edge, these stories are dynamic, bleakly humorous and thoroughly engrossing.
“Ballad of Rocky Rontal” is a heart-wrenching and searing story about the vicious cycle of violence and poverty. “Abraham Lincoln Has Been Shot” is a bizarre love story about Lincoln that takes place in modern day Chicago. Alarcón’s finely honed journalistic eye is apparent in how acutely observant his stories are, with the narrative mixing empathy with detachment. All the stories have strong political undertones, incisively tackling topics like violence, dictatorship, and immigration. With a distinct Latin flavor that evokes the poignancy of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Alarcon’s writing is resplendent and deeply humane. This book is a masterclass in short story writing and explores isolation, redemption, and family loyalty with heart wrenching precision.
You Should Come With Me Now by M. John Harrison
Spoiler Alert: Second paragraph down
Master of the weird and eerie, this writer counts Angela Carter, Olivia Laing, Robert Macfarlane, and China Miéville among his admirers. Harrison is known to be genre-defying writer and his exhilarating originality is evident in this collection. He effortlessly takes unusual concepts and grounds them in concrete reality. The stories in his latest book are about existential dread, marital strife, and demands of modern life. From mordantly funny flash fiction to disorienting stories about regular people, Harrison juxtaposes the mundane with the bizarre, with utter disregard of convention.
“The Walls” is almost like a funhouse-mirror reflection of The Shawshank Redemption tunnel digging bit. Here, the prisoner spends decades chipping away at the wall of his cell, only to find more walls behind it. Rather than being discouraged, this seems to spur him on as he continues to tirelessly work. The story ends with readers finding out that the door to his cell was unlocked and he could have walked out any time. It subverts conventional narrative by emphasizing how the prisoner chose futile labor over freedom. Harrison has this uncanny ability to excavate the disturbing from the ordinary events of our life. From an unsettling vision of near-future Britain to aliens taking over the world’s financial capitals, these are weird stories for weird times. You Should Come With Me Now blurs the boundaries between science fiction, horror, and fantasy. With resolutely dry wit, the stories in this subversive collection are by turn strange, weird, and outlandish, while at the same time extremely humane.