I’ve read and loved a few Maugham novels without realising that he also excelled at short stories. This is the first one of a four volume collection, which I’ll no doubt complete one day as I love both short stories and Maugham’s brilliant writing. As in any collection, the quality varies somewhat, but most entries are great little gems of economical, elegant storytelling.
The thirty stories contained in the volume are grouped together by geography, as they move from the islands of the Pacific Ocean to England, France, Spain and back to Borneo. They vary wildly in length – some stories take up forty pages and others stop at four – and in tone, with some stories light-hearted and dryly comical, almost resembling a witty punchy epigram, while others are almost luridly tragic.
In between book club reading, I’ve revisited one of my favourite short story collections, which is destined to be one of those books I take off the shelf again and again. I’ve heard a few people say that they find short stories frustrating; it’s probably the way they toss you out of the world created by the author just when the reader gets into the story and characters. And for sure, a novel offers a more engrossing experience you can get properly lost in. But as a reader, few things are as satisfying to me as an effortlessly perfect short story that makes an impression and creates a lived-in world in a space of a few pages, and Lahiri is one of the best authors I’ve read (Pulitzer Prize people agreed as well, since this collection won the 2000 fiction prize).
Neil Gaiman has become one of my favourite writers over the years and I was happy to get my hands on this latest third collection of short trips into the weird, shadowy country of Gaiman’s mind. It never really occurred to me to compare him to Ray Bradbury, but in fact Gaiman’s short stories have the same effect on me that I had while engrossed in Bradbury’s fiction when a teenager – a pleasantly uneasy sensation of looking at the world in a distorted mirror, or lifting the fabric of reality to find some dark, strange, disturbing things lurking underneath. Gaiman’s imagination is just as boundless, and his voice as a writer is just as distinctive (his books on the whole have a lot more graphic sex, though not in this particular collection).
I’ve always loved short stories and this collection certainly has a unique premise. Each of the ten short stories is narrated by a soul of a different animal caught up in the human conflicts of the last century, and ends with the tale of their deaths. Among them is a female cat surviving in the trenches of World War I, who reminisces about her life with her bohemian actress owner; a bear slowly starving to death in the zoo of the war-torn Sarajevo; a tortoise who crosses paths with several literary geniuses and dreams of travelling to space; a young mussel who goes on a road trip Kerouac-style.