Staying Home: Short Stories

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Read 02/06/2022-03/06/2022

Rating 4 stars

Staying Home is a collection of four short stories selected from the 2020 Comma Press Short Story Course. These course collections are available exclusively in Kindle format for 99 pence each, and are often the first time the included writers have been published.

The 2020 course collection features four women writers, one of whom is a friend. The course took place online in the thick of the coronavirus pandemic, and this is reflected in the subject matter of one the stories.

Opener ‘Living in A Germ Factory’ by Liz Champion has an obsession with the news at its heart. It’s an obsession fixed specifically on news of the unfolding pandemic – infection rates, incubation periods, the cocktail of symptoms – and is full of deadpan lines of dialogue and high energy humour as the main character transfers her obsession to cleaning.

Dipika Mummery’s story ‘Maya’s Imaginary Tiger’ is about a woman trapped in a marriage she didn’t ask for and a minimalist house she didn’t decorate. The depiction of Maya’s husband Vijay in absentia brings tension to the story. Without it being said directly, we know that Maya is an abused woman from the stress that taking a pencil and piece of paper from her husband’s study causes her. When Maya’s housewife existence brings her the opportunity to escape through a chatshow competition, her sudden emancipation feels satisfying.

‘Unimaginable Times’ by Michelle Lawson follows a woman on a genealogical quest to the Pyrenees. The style of this story is light fiction flecked with mystery, not a genre I read very often and a contrast to the other stories in the collection. The main character Jennifer is middle aged, lacking in confidence, in thrall to her sister, bored with her life. The author presents a sympathetic portrait of her. At the remote hotel where Jennifer stays, she meets an enigmatic and energetic man from Switzerland to whom she is instantly attracted. At the local museum, she is introduced to an English historian who helps her unpick her family mystery, leading her to explore the mountain. The description of her mountain top adventure and the sense of place it gave me was my favourite thing about this story.

The final story, ‘Dick’ by Jess Woo, has the best opening paragraph in the collection, specific and intriguing at the same time, placing the reader geographically and atmospherically in the story’s location. The narrator is part of a crew that attends to beached whales, collecting samples that might help to explain why a whale ends up too close to shore, trapped in an estuary, or otherwise far from its natural habitat. I liked the breezy style of narration that mixed biology with anthropology, and the visceral depiction of the hacking up of the whale carcass. There’s a gallows humour to the proceedings, the sort shared by anyone who works in the grim areas of public service.

Each of these stories is good, but I could tell that the writers were still exploring how to shape their work. ‘Living in A Germ Factory’ ends quite abruptly. It felt like there was more that could have been said between the last two paragraphs. ‘Maya’s Imaginary Tiger’ is full of detail, as though the writer was scared of the adage ‘less is more’. The use of dialogue to deliver exposition in ‘Unimaginable Times’ made the narrative feel stilted at times. While ‘Dick’ was my favourite in the collection, it had its imperfections in the over-technicality of some of the language, which felt a little alienating.

My friend’s story is the first piece that she ever had published and, comparing it with two of her more recent published works, I can see the improvement in her short form writing style in the 18 months or so since this collection was published.

I don’t know the other authors and haven’t read anything else by them, but I hope that this step in their writing careers has similarly led to other things. I can see why these stories were chosen.

It was interesting to read this sort of anthology, where the stories are pieces worked on during a short story course. There are lots of volumes in the series and this collection was a quick read. Something to keep in mind when wanting to try something new in future, perhaps.

Staying Home is the first of my 10 Books of Summer.

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