I’ve always enjoyed novels far more than short stories. I like to really sink my teeth into a characters and a narrative, and spend some time with them. Recently, however, I have found myself reading more short stories and poetry than usual. That could be because reading preferences are not static, and change over time. It could also be that it has just been too damn hot to do any one thing for too long. Reading in puddles of sweat on my couch is not exactly enjoyable, and my attention span seems to have taken a bit of a nose dive. So instead of my thoughts on a novel (of which I have only read three in 2016 thus far), here are three short stories I read recently that I’ve really liked. Minor spoilers (but not the endings).
Click the titles to open the story in a new page.
“The good thing about having a past life was that you got the chance to return to earth as the same person you’d once been, but this time you could make things come out better.”
Anyone who has ever discussed books with me knows that I love Margaret Atwood. Or rather, I love her writing. What is interesting is that I really did not enjoy the first book of hers that I ever read. I thought it was boring and pretentious. In my defence, I was forced to read it as part of a first year university course on postcolonial literature given by a lecturer who wouldn’t know postcolonial literature if she fell over it. Also, I found the lecturer’s teaching style and ideas – as well as her inflexibility in being open to differing interpretations of literature – rather dull and pompous, and I think my impression of her rubbed off on Atwood’s book. Luckily for me, however, I picked up another Atwood novel a few years later and she is now one of my top five favourite authors.
This short story, First Lives Club, really encapsulates everything I love about Atwood’s work: humour-tinged writing, beautiful prose, imaginative and compelling premise, and the ability to both shock and amuse at the same time. The story follows Marla who makes her first foray into meeting people online. On a website called PLAYS, for Past Lives And Your Self people are able to get in touch with who they were in past lives, such as Anne Boleyn, Adolf Hitler or Henry the Fourth. Initially dismissive of what she thinks of a “nutty illusion”, Marla begins to find herself increasingly swept up into the life and thoughts of Mary Stewart, Queen of Scots.
Meanwhile, Marla’s friend Sal – who introduced her to the website – claims to have been Cleopatra and begins a relationship with Marc Antony (otherwise known as Bob when not online). Marc/Bob should perhaps have been a little more cautious in his choice of mate; maybe he didn’t make it all the way through Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. If he had, he would know it ends rather tragically. Perhaps he realised this as he fell to his grisly death off a boat into the crocodile-infested Nile. Not one to mourn for too long, Sal invites Marla to visit her and meet her new lover, the Earl of Essex (otherwise known as Dave). The reason for her quick recovery is due to the fact that Sal is no longer Cleopatra. She is now Elizabeth the First, much to Marla’s dismay, given that Elizabeth the First and Mary Queen of Scots were cousins with a rather troubled and complicated relationship. The only possible outcome is conflict.
This is a story about the power of fantasy, friendships and a slow descent into madness.
Rating: 5/5: Excellent and highly recommended.
“Have you ever had that feeling? Those days that stretch out, when you believe that you won’t be able to breathe if you don’t see someone or at least hear their voice or smell their scent on a book, a jumper, a discarded cigarette end?”
The first time I read this story, I thought it was a story about sexual violence: a 30-something man begins an inappropriate relationship with a 14 year old girl who looks up to him. I thought that the second time I read it too. Then I decided to see what people were saying about this story elsewhere. “Beautiful”, “first love” and “love story” seemed to be the general impressions. I read it again. It’s still a story about violence. It is not lost on me that this is a story about the complex and conflicting feelings of a 14 year old interested in sexual exploration, but this is how many stories of childhood sexual violence begin. Of course, in a society where we sometimes set up very low expectations for men (I mean, how could he be expected to say no to sex, even if it is with a child?), I’m not surprised people interpreted the story in that way. You are going to have to decide for yourself what this story means to you.
Portia, the narrator, is a 14 year old girl from a Catholic family where girls are expected to avoid getting good Catholic boys “in trouble” by wearing anything too revealing. Portia is interested in acting, and her parents introduce her to Gerry, an actor from another nice Catholic family. They spend considerable time in her bedroom reading plays and literature, his eyes roving over her body and Portia fantasising about having sex with him. Their relationship evolves and they talk on the phone for long periods of time, as Gerry lives in another city. Portia yearns to be with him, and finds the separation unbearable. Gerry hints that she should get a boyfriend so that she can have sex and describe it to him on the phone. She feels betrayed by the suggestion and uneasy, but she goes along with it. Over time, Portia begins to feel increasingly uncomfortable with the nature of their relationship.
Halfway through this story, I felt like I was reading scenes from Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, and Gerry reminded me of a less-obvious version of Humbert Humbert. Shortly after this occurred to me, I came to this passage:
“I found Nabokov’s Lolita, carried it with me everywhere, so that it gained an almost talismanic significance, only to tear it up when Gerry shouted at me after I confessed how much I loved it. The rage in his voice made the distance between my handset and his vibrate with fury. Was that what I thought of him, that he was some fucking seedy pervert?”
I can’t speak to the author’s intentions, but the story is certainly not presented as some sort of romantic love story, and contains several passages that speak to the potential damage of such a relationship. You should, of course, judge for yourself.
4/5 – Very good and recommended
“Being naked, alone with silence in the house, is therapy. Now Nnam understands why when people lose their minds the first impulse is to strip naked. Clothes are constricting but you don’t realize until you have walked naked in your house all day, every day for a week.”
Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi has crafted a wonderful story about trying to mourn a loved one who was not quite who you thought he was. The story is told from the perspective of Nnam, a Ugandan woman living in the United Kingdom. Her husband – Kayita – and the father of her two children, dies unexpectedly. They appear to have a happy and healthy relationship, and Nnam encourages him to maintain contact with his two other children from an earlier relationship. His other children still live in Uganda with their mother. After making arrangements, Nnam and her sons visit Uganda to bury Kayita. Upon arrival, Nnam discovers that not everything was as she thought. Her husband had been married to the mother of his two other children, and never divorced her. In fact, on his frequent visits back to Uganda, he had fathered two more children. The house Nnam and Kayita (mostly Nnam) paid for to be built in Uganda which was to bring in rental income had been occupied by Kayita’s other family. This makes for a rather interesting and tense funeral.
Makumbi writes from the perspective of Nnam, therefore the story is most sympathetic to her situation, rather than Kayita’s other wife. Makumbi is particularly deft at handling the gender dynamics subtly, addressing questions of women’s economic independence (and the dangers of dependence), and family preferences for sons. She also addresses the impact of immigration on family structures and expectations. The story is beautifully written, and definitely worth a read.
4/5 – Very good and recommended
Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi is a Ugandan author. You can find out more about her writing at her website. She has some interesting thoughts and comments on the way in which Europe has remained at the centre of African literature due to the focus on colonialism and postcolonialism, and the ways in which many European readers are not interested in stories that don’t prioritise the experiences of white characters. Here is an interview where she talks about this, as well as her novel Kintu. Here is a good article about her writing, and some of the themes that emerged in her interview.