‘The collection illustrates just how vibrant and varied the UK short story writing scene is at the moment’ – The Best British Short Stories 2011, edited by Nicholas Royle

Twenty short stories make up this anthology, the first of its kind out of the Salt stable. Nicholas Royle – Manchester-based Nightjar Press publisher, creative writing lecturer and author of a number of stories and novels including Antwerp – has recently been taken on by the house as commissioning editor for British literary fiction, and this project kicks off his new role.

The collection illustrates just how vibrant and varied the UK short story writing scene is at the moment, although the inclusions are limited to “proper” short stories and flash or micro fiction doesn’t get a look-in, which is a slight shame. Still, each is well crafted and there’s much breadth in terms of style, tone and theme – running from love to war and covering everything in between.

The range does mean you don’t necessarily pine for all twenty tales, but there’s certainly enough to keep your interest piqued and, where one might fall slightly flat, the next will pick things right back up. Actually, the order is well decided, like a good mixtape, and gives the collection plenty of peaks and pace. Kirsty Logan’s short offering ‘The Rental Heart’, which serves up a futuristic solution to dealing with heartbreak (“a perfect curl of clockwork”), follows hot on the heels of Alan Beard’s more drawn-out, sexually heightened and perhaps slightly shocking ‘Staff Development’ (“fingers clamped until he gets in the right position to let go… whacking the dribble in”), and the juxtaposition makes an excellent pairing.

Booker Prize-winner Hilary Mantel is the only writer to swing two entries. The first, ‘Winter Break’, comes complete with a traditional yet totally unexpected dark twist in the tail; the second, ‘Comma’, has a mysterious undercurrent and some lovely language: “It was a summer that, by the end of July, had bleached adults of their purpose”.

Uncanniness is a dominant theme throughout. Robert Edric’s ‘Moving Day’ serves up a vision of a dystopian future in a slightly JG Ballard-meets-Arthur C Clarke way, while a different kind of disturbing alternative reality is visited in Michèle Roberts’ ‘Tristram And Isolde’.

Another focal point is nature, often in relation to its effects on human behaviour. Opener ‘Flora’ by David Rose and ‘The Swimmer’ by the lesser-known SJ Butler both have the effect of being calm yet equally rather violent in their observations of botanical and avian subjects, while ‘Notes On A Love Story’ by Philip Langeskov is intriguing in its observation of massing brent geese in the Thames Estuary and the mood-changing influence of a large weather front passing over. Unfortunately I found Langeskov’s use of footnotes to tell a second interwoven story a nuisance interruption rather than a clever device, and I never got round to reading beyond the main piece.

Nicholas Royle “protégée” Claire Massey’s ‘Feather Girls’ continues the bird theme (Royle is an ornithologist in his spare time and is currently compiling a collection of stories, Murmurations, purely about our feathered friends), and her story, along with Adam Marek’s ‘Dinner Of The Dead Alumni’, is one of my stand-out favourites. Both share a slightly supernatural slant (Massey: “The sun sparkled on the peat-coloured lake below, making magic of dun”), yet their sense remains totally believable as they are firmly anchored in the world we all know and conjure up images so clear as to be almost tangible (Marek: “At the end of her scream, Yolanda’s teeth sing like a tuning fork”).

Any Cop?: The blurb describes this as “the first of an annual series presenting the best short stories by British authors published in anthologies, collections, magazines, newspapers and websites over the past year”, and I can’t really argue with that.
Sarah-Clare Conlon