By coincidence, I have recently read two collections of short fiction by two of my favourite authors which bring together stories united around specific themes. ‘Property’ is Lionel Shriver’s first collection of short stories which all address the title’s literal definition in relation to real estate and also in a more figurative sense as ownership and possession. Ten shorter pieces many of which have previously been published in magazines are bookended by two novellas ‘The Standing Chandelier’ about the dynamics of Weston Babansky’s 20+ year friendship with Jillian Frisk and her unusual choice of wedding gift when he marries his girlfriend Paige and ‘The Subletter’ written in 1999 about an American journalist living in Belfast during the Troubles who has territorial struggles of her own.
Shriver has long been an astute observer of human behaviour in her novels but I found these stories to be some of her most caustic and incisive work yet. Perhaps this is because ‘Property’ has been particularly timely reading for me as I will finally be getting my foot on the housing ladder in the next few weeks and many of the scenarios here represent some of my worst nightmares. ‘Vermin’ and ‘Repossession’ both explore the perils of buying a property, the latter of which features a house haunted by its previous evicted occupier. Even more terrifying, though, is ‘Domestic Terrorism’ about a baby-boomer couple, Harriet and Court, whose thirty-something son, Liam, shows no sign of ever moving out of the family home. They resort to changing the locks but their tough love strategy backfires and results in him camping out on the front lawn in protest. I don’t know if Shriver has ever considered a change of direction towards writing straight-up horror stories but her particular brand of provocative and psychologically sharp prose shows she might be half way there already.
I have been meaning to read Ali Smith’s short stories for some time having enjoyed several of her novels. Her most recent collection published in 2015 ’Public Library and Other Stories’ brings together tales of literature, language and the value of public spaces, interspersed with reflections from the likes of Kate Atkinson and Kamila Shamsie about what libraries mean to them. It is these contributions which shape and unify the collection as a whole, as it’s fair to say that the library connection is pretty tangenital in several of these stories, many of which are more like rough sketches than fully fleshed out pieces and often focus on some semi-obscure literary figures. However, although I think the surreal side of Smith’s style is better suited to long-form fiction, her passionate advocacy of the vital role that libraries play in local communities shines through the more scattered and whimsical elements of the collection as a sincere protest against austerity cuts. And yes, I did borrow this book from a library.