New Welsh Short Stories
‘All of these short stories crackle with creative skill.’ – The Short Story
The best of contemporary Welsh short-story writing, New Welsh Short Stories offers a wide-ranging view of a country from new and established writers including Stevie Davies, Trezza Azzopardi, Joe Dunthorne, Cynan Jones, Deborah Kay Davies and Rachel Trezise. Stories range from the personal to the universal; from the streets of urban south Wales to the wilder reaches of small town and countryside; from film sets to the limits of time and space.
Other authors include Joao Morais, Zillah Bethell, Sarah Coles, Tyler Keevil, Jo Mazelis, Kate Hamer, Mary-Ann Constantine, Tom Morris, Maria Donovan, Robert Minhinnick, Carys Davies and Holly Múller.
REVIEW by Vicky MacKenzie, New Welsh Review
New Welsh Short Stories by Francesca Rhydderch & Penny Thomas, eds
It’s a good time to be a short story lover: prizes such as the BBC National Short Story Award and the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award attract high-calibre international writers, and there are countless other well-respected competitions, from the Bridport to the VS Pritchett Memorial Prize, to help writers establish their reputations. There are now several festivals dedicated solely to the form, including Small Wonder at Charleston and the London Short Story Festival; meanwhile, Alice Munro’s Nobel Prize win in 2013 made it clear that the short story is an art form as deserving of serious consideration as the novel or poetry.
In the introduction to this new collection of stories from Seren there’s no mention of the hackneyed ‘slice of life’ model of short fiction. We have moved away from the attitude that the short story is the younger sibling of the novel, a dry run for writers before they launch into the serious business of constructing long tomes. Francesca Rhydderch and Penny Thomas have selected writers who, although they may write in other genres, are committed to the short story and are interested in its formal possibilities. The only commissioning criterion they set for these stories, beyond excellent writing, was that the writers were either born in or currently live in Wales. But not all of the stories have an obvious Welsh connection – here are stories set in China, Japan, on a Scottish island and partly in Moravia. The editors write, ‘We were not seeking writing that was specifically representative of contemporary Wales.’ The nineteen writers showcased include an impressive number of well-known literary names alongside talented newcomers, and the diversity and internationalism displayed in these pages is a strength of the collection and of contemporary Welsh writing in English more generally.
Canadian author Tyler Keevil kicks off the collection with a distinctly North American accent in ‘Night Start’:
It was late June, and hot, and I was having a hell of a time falling asleep. That was nothing new. That’s always the case, with me. Partly I’d been thinking about the bun Lowri had in the oven, and all the change that was coming at us.
The influence of Raymond Carver is palpable, but Keevil’s voice is his own as he takes us into ‘the dark of rural Wales’, where a recently deceased neighbour’s shed door is mysteriously banging, tempting the narrator into the warm summer night.
In Joâo Morais’ story, ‘Yes Kung Fu’, the protagonist attempts to calm the local psychopath whom he finds karate chopping a young mother’s car: ‘“Don’t worry,” I goes to her. “It’s Kung Fu. I knows him. I’ll go talk to him.”’ It’s a highly entertaining but cautionary tale; after all, ‘If you can’t work out who the Kung Fu is round your way, it could be you.’
The second short story collection from rising star Carys Davies, The Redemption of Galen Pike, was recently shortlisted for the prestigious Edge Hill Short Story Prize as well as Wales Book of the Year. Her story, ‘Mr Philip’, is a tender depiction of the relationship between a man and his elderly father, and in its vivid details of ordinary life, ordinary loneliness and ordinary grief it manages to break the reader’s heart.
Zillah Bethell’s story, ‘Liar’s Sonnet’, written in the voice of Einstein’s daughter, reads more like a prose poem than a traditional narrative, so lyrical is its language and so concerned with sound:
My heart’s had a coronary. Lit up like a Christmas tree with the electric shock. Words hang heavy as chocolate pennies. Ain’t she pitiful. Only speaks in doggerel. There’ll have to be a funeral.
The harried businessman in Mary-Ann Constantine’s ‘John Henry’ is haunted by a ballad about a man hammering steel. He attempts to continue with his usual morning routine – coffee from an Italian café, a guilt-assuaging purchase of The Big Issue, a taxi ride to the train station – but the lyrics increasingly disturb him until finally they take over both his mind and the world around him.
Other forms explored in this adventurous collection include an epistolary tale with a twist; a story written as a description of a film including script and camera directions, and one told entirely through dialogue between two unnamed protagonists.
Some claim that short stories are perfect for reading on one’s daily commute. But they’re not like fragments of a novel: they are more like poetry in their intensity. Read them when you have a clear mind and can give them the attention they deserve. The death of the short story (like that of poetry) has been prematurely announced many times, but judging by the beating heart, the rush of blood, and the zing of energy in these poignant, humorous and sometimes downright bizarre stories, the shroud can be tidied away for the time being.
Vicky MacKenzie lives in Scotland and is writing a novel about John Ruskin.
REVIEW by Kate Vane
The editors of New Welsh Short Stories had only two criteria, that the writer should be born or living in Wales and that the work should be originally in English. The resulting collection of nineteen stories has a wide range of themes, locations and even lengths.
There is a strong emphasis on realism. Often the stories focus on the poor or excluded. In ‘Yes Kung Fu’ by Joâo Morais the narrator becomes comically embroiled in helping a chaotic man back to his carer, disrupting the precarious order in his own life.
In ‘Rising-Falling’ by Joe Dunthorne a physics professor falls in love with a woman on the internet and travels to meet her. The author challenges the apparent predictability of the story head on through the unique voice and insights of the narrator.
Other stories are more playful with form. Among these I liked ‘A Letter from Wales’ by Cynan Jones, an odd account of a nineteenth-century researcher into children afflicted by mysterious bites, complete with diagrams.
‘Liar’s Sonnet’ by Zillah Bethell gives a haunting, childlike voice to Einstein’s mysterious daughter, Lieserl. In ‘John Henry’ by Mary-Ann Constantine, a man in crisis finds his life disrupted by visions and fragments of song.
My favourite is ‘17’ by Thomas Morris, the story of a seventeen-year-old told in seventeen short chapters. He feels his life escalate out of control as he negotiates arrest, a rampaging neighbour and wrestling women. And there’s a castle. This is Wales after all.