Some of these stories were published this year but some are much older. All are my top picks from the stories I read in 2016.
1. ‘The Quiet’ by Carys Davies
This story, set in a remote Australia, is breathtaking. A young wife reluctantly invites her neighbour into her home and the consequences are both profound and eerie. The story’s atmosphere stayed with me for weeks.
His sheepskin waistcoat creaked; he didn’t know where to begin. He’d rehearsed everything before he came, had stood for an hour or more before the mirror looking at his own half-naked body, and it had all gone smoothly enough. The words had come without too much difficulty. Now, looking at the other man’s wife standing at the stove with her slender back turned towards him, they escaped him.
Carys Davies won the 2015 Frank O’Connor Award for her collection The Redemption of Galen Pike in which ‘The Quiet’ appears. Galen Pike has been combined with her collection Some New Ambush and published as The Travellers and Other Stories.
2. ‘The Swimmer’ by John Cheever
Ned swims the pools of his neighbourhood and he is really paddling underneath a great sorrow that he seems to forget about when he’s propelling himself through the water. He wonders if he is losing his memory.
He seemed to see, with a cartographer’s eye, that string of swimming pools, that quasi subterranean stream that curved across the country.
John Cheever (1912 – 1982) was an American novelist and short story writer. He is sometimes called ‘the Chekhov of the suburbs’.
3. ‘Taking Care’ by Joy Williams
Jones is a preacher whose wife is ill in hospital and whose daughter has problems. He is left holding the baby (his daughter’s) and straddling the roles of husband, mother and father. This modest man’s story moves like a meditation or a dream and its melancholy helps us empathise with his predicament. This is a powerful and touching portrait by a virtuoso of the short story form.
In the hospital, his wife waits to be translated, no longer a woman, the woman he loves, but a situation. Her blood moves as mysteriously as the constellations. She is under scrutiny and attack and she has abandoned Jones. She is a swimmer waiting to get on with the drowning. Jones is on the shore.
Joy Williams is an American novelist, short story writer, and essayist. In a Paris Review interview she said, ‘I go away to Yaddo, in the winter. I write a story called “Taking Care”. I show the story to a writer there, a sophisticated feminist from New York. She suggests I cut the final line, “Together they enter the shining rooms.” I am dismayed. I become suspicious of readers. Of course I will not cut the line. It carries the story into the celestial, where it longs to go.’ ‘Taking Care’ is in her collection The Visiting Privilege.
4. ‘This Old Man’ by Pierz Newton-John
This is such a tender, beautifully paced story, it held me captive long after I’d closed the book.
I fit the mask to his face, careful not to snag his hair. Then I arrange the snorkel and we sit side by side on the platform, our legs dangling in the dark slapping water, in mystery. I hold his hand, small as a starfish.
And we slide down into the quiet blue.
Pierz Newton-John is a writer, psychotherapist and software designer. His short stories have been widely published in Australian literary journals and anthologies, and his critically acclaimed collection Fault Lines was published by Spineless Wonders in 2012.
5. ‘Dr. H. A. Moynihan’ by Lucia Berlin
You may never want to go to the dentist again after reading this gory story. It’s from Berlin’s stellar collection The Manual for Cleaning Women. It is a pretty disturbing story—visceral and strange.
Shelves were crammed with rusty tools and rows of dentures, grinning, or upside down, frowning, like theatre masks. He chanted while he worked, his half-smoked cigarettes often igniting gobs of wax or candy bar wrappers. He threw coffee on the fires, staining the plaster-soft floor a deep cave brown.
Lucia Berlin (1936 –2004) was an American short story writer who did not reach a mass audience during her lifetime. She rose to sudden literary fame 11 years after her death, in August 2015, with Farrar, Straus and Giroux’s publication A Manual For Cleaning Women. It hit The New York Times bestseller list in its second week and, within a few weeks, had outsold all her previous books combined.
6. ‘A Small Good Thing’ by Raymond Carver
This is a devastating story about how life can wear people down into small, myopic and lonely beings barely recognisable to themselves. It shows how this smallness can injure others—but also how, sometimes, miraculously, all may not be lost. I really loved the roles food plays in the narrative—both painful and soothing.
The baker stood in the light and peered out at them. ‘I’m closed for business,’ he said. ‘What do you want at this hour? It’s midnight. Are you drunk or something?’
‘She stepped into the light that fell through the open door. He blinked his heavy eyelids as he recognized her. ‘It’s you,’ he said.
‘It’s me,’ she said. ‘Scotty’s mother. This is Scotty’s father. We’d like to come in.’
Raymond Carver (1938–1988) was an American author and poet credited with helping to revive the short story form. ‘A Small, Good Thing’ is a revised version of ‘The Bath’ and is published in his collection Cathedral. Jonathan Yardley reviewed Cathedral for the Washington Post Book World. He maintained that ‘“The Bath” is a good short story, while “A Small, Good Thing” comes breathtakingly close to perfection.’
7. ‘Foster’ by Clare Keegan
‘Foster’ is a truly amazing tale—spare, wise and complex. Keegan knows how to twist a tale so that you are caught—deliciously and dangerously—in its web. The story centres on a child who is sent to stay with relatives in rural Ireland while her mother gives birth. She discovers a tragic secret and also finds there is a particular kind of power in not telling what you know.
Everything about the night feels strange: to walk to a sea that’s always been there, to see it and feel it and fear it in the half-dark, to listen to this man telling me things—about horses being towed in from the deep, about his wife trusting others so she’ll learn whom not to trust—things that I don’t fully understand, things that may not even be intended for me.
Claire Keegan is an Irish writer whose first collection of short stories, Antarctica, was awarded the Rooney Prize for Literature. Her second short story collection, Walk the Blue Fields, was published to enormous critical acclaim in 2007 and won her the 2008 Edge Hill Prize for Short Stories. ‘Foster’ won the 2009 Davy Byrnes short story award, appeared in The New Yorker to rapturous acclaim, and consequently had the distinction of being published as a standalone book by Faber.
8. ‘The Lottery’ by Shirley Jackson
The slow build of this story is compelling even when you know a really bad thing is coming—and has to come—because enough hints have been dropped to leave you with your heart in your mouth. The villagers have gathered in the square to have their names drawn from a ballot box to see who wins the ‘lottery’. The final scene is devastating but you can’t look away. As author A. M. Homes puts it, ‘The world of Shirley Jackson is eerie and unforgettable … It is a place where things are not what they seem; even on a morning that is sunny and clear there is always the threat of darkness looming, of things taking a turn for the worse.’
‘The Lottery’ was first published in The New Yorker in 1948 and readers were so horrified they sent Jackson hate mail. Today it is widely considered to be one of the greatest American stories of all time.
People began to look around to see the Hutchinsons. Bill Hutchinson was standing quiet, staring down at the paper in his hand. Suddenly, Tessie Hutchinson shouted to Mr Summers, ‘You didn’t give him time enough to take any paper he wanted. I saw you. It wasn’t fair!’
‘Be a good sport, Tessie,’ Mrs Delacroix called, and Mrs Graves said, ‘All of us took the same chance.’
Shirley Jackson (1916 –1965) was an American author. She was a popular writer in her time, and her work has received increased attention from literary critics in recent years. She influenced Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Nigel Neale, Joanne Harris and Richard Matheson.
9. ‘Shibboleth’ by Jo Riccioni
Jo Riccioni’s title story in Shibboleth: and Other Stories shows perfectly how past intimacies catch at a young woman’s mind and emotions as she meets an old lover in London at the Tate. ‘Shibboleth’ won the Margaret River Short Story Competition in 2016 and has some great dialogue and imagery.
‘You are such an arse,’ she told him. ‘Were you spying all along, or are you just late?’ She heard the flatness of her vowels, the seven years since her last visit an audible breach between them. She put her arms around him and inhaled—just a little breath, just like she’d promised herself she wouldn’t. How could his smell not have changed when everything else had? It seemed cruel, a nasty biological taunt.
Jo Riccioni is a writer based in Sydney. She is the author of numerous features and short stories. Her novel, The Italians at Cleat’s Corner Store, won the fiction category of the International Rubery Book Award in 2015 and was long-listed for the New Angle Prize in the UK.
10. ‘Glisk’ by Josephine Rowe
This story was a worthy winner of the ABR Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize 2016. I read it once and it hung around in my nose and hair and skin like salt from seawater until I read it again. It still lingers. Sad, true, haunting. A story of half brothers and how a single moment can spin them off on totally different trajectories …
We are wading out, the five of us. The sun an hour or two from melting into the ocean, the slick trail of its gold showing the way we will take.
Ahead of me, my tiny sister sits regal and unafraid in the middle of the raft that Fynn has built from packing foam and empty chemical buckets, lids fixed airtight with caulk. …
The people around us hardly seem like people. More like a muster of herd animals. They move steadily through the water in ones and twos, feeling for the slope of the sandbar underfoot, the treacherous edge where the ocean floor falls away.
Josephine Rowe is an Australian writer of short fiction, poetry and essays. Her story collections include How a Moth Becomes a Boat and Tarcutta Wake. Her writing has appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, The Iowa Review, Best Australian Poems, Best Australian Stories, and The Monthly. Her debut novel A Loving, Faithful Animal was published in 2016. She is currently a Wallace Stegner Fellow in fiction at Stanford University.
11. ‘The Wrath Of Achilles’ by Harry Kolotas
When I first heard this story read at Little Fictions @ Knox Street Bar I laughed so much my sides ached! It contains such a wonderful depiction of life in Greece and the anarchy that can reign there that I recommended it to my friend who goes to Greece for several months every year. She laughed until her sides ached too!
His name was Achilles, a good traditional Greek name that suited him well. He was a certain type of Greek, one of those opinionated, narrow-minded, excitable types, born and raised in Athens, convinced of that city’s innate superiority over any other. I, on the other hand, am second generation of migrant descent, neither Anglo nor Greek, a wan imitation becalmed in some equivocal twilight. Which, of course, was why I was so drawn to him. Like a moth to a flame.
Harry Kolotas was born in England to Greek Cypriot parents, raised in Scotland, lives in Australia, and has had a lifelong love affair with words.
12. ‘Better Homes and Gardens’ by Catherine Moffat
Catherine Moffat puts herself into the shoes of a homeless family and shows us the stigma and shame that can arise from being poor as well as the creativity and the tenacity of the human spirit in the face of it. This story won the The Hope Prize and features in Hope: An Anthology. Cate Blanchett, who helped judge the prize, said the story turned her world upside down.
After a swim, we do some more beach runs and then into the showers. Only one of the showers works properly so we have to take turns. We push the button and jump under the water and try to wash before the hot water runs out. Dad showed us how to rub sand on our body instead of soap to get the dirt off. ‘Lots of women pay big money at the day spa,’ he says. ‘Here we can get it for free.’
Catherine Moffat has had stories published in literary magazines including Australian Book Review and Australian Short Stories, and on Radio National as well as in a number of anthologies including The Mer-Creature and other stories, Things that are Found in Trees, Novascapes, The Lost Boy and Shibboleth. She is a winner of the Katharine Susannah Prichard Speculative Fiction competition, the Wyong Short Story Competition, and The Scarlett Stiletto’s The Body in the Library prize. She has been shortlisted for other prizes including the Margaret River Short Story competition, the Newcastle Short Story prize and the Elizabeth Jolley short story competition. NB: She is also my writing buddy. So proud!
13. ‘Exposure’ by Jon Steiner
This short story from Steiner’s collection The Last Wilkie’s and Other Stories features a young man and an older woman trapped and injured after a car crash. We get to listen in on their conversation … and there’s a twist in the tale that made me catch my breath.
Nobody knows where we are. Nobody knows we’re together. Nobody knows we’re down here.
Jon Steiner is an American-born Australian writer based in Sydney. He completed a Graduate Diploma in Writing at UTS, and has been published in the UTS Writers’ Anthology and two Spineless Wonders collections. The Last Wilkie’s and Other Stories is his debut collection.
14. ‘Aunt Merle’ by Linda Godfrey
Aunt Merle is drawn from a real woman Linda Godfrey encountered when growing up. In the story Merle has a plan to encourage a little girl called Harriet to show some backbone. It involves a bull and a paddock … uh huh. This is a finely wrought story of depth and nuance. The girl’s ordeal made me squirm.
Merle grumbled about the bloody dogs and how she was going to get them all put down. However, when she fondled the pups her wrinkles seemed to soften. It did not seem to Harriet that Merle minded them at all.
Linda Godfrey is a poet, writer, editor and Program Manager for the Wollongong Writers Festival. Her fiction and poetry has appeared in Cordite, Meniscus, Cuttlefish, the UTS Writers’ Anthology, Nine Tenths Below, Escape and Flashing the Square, audio anthologies by River Road Press, online, and other anthologies. She is a fiction reader for Overland magazine. She has been the recipient of a Varuna Longlines Residency Program, and an Australian Society of Authors mentorship.
15. ‘The Rabbit Hole as Likely Explanation’ by Ann Beattie
Everyone who cares for an ageing parent should read this story. Everyone who cares for an ageing parent living with dementia should weigh up the pros and cons: Will the story give them some light relief and make them feel they’re not alone in their frustrations? Or will it make them sadder, and more aware of how trapped they feel? My two-word summary is ‘brilliantly excruciating’. My slightly longer assessment: ‘Fingernails scraping down a Jeffrey Smart painting’.
‘I don’t think your new job agrees with you. You’re such a beautiful seamstress—a real, old-fashioned talent—and what do you do but work on computers and leave that lovely house in the country and drive into this . . . this crap five days a week.’
‘Thank you, Ma, for expressing even more eloquently than I—’
‘Did you finish those swordfish costumes?’
‘Starfish. I was tired, and I watched TV last night. Now, if you sit in that chair over there you’ll see me pull in. It’s windy. I don’t want you standing outside.’
‘You always have some reason why I can’t be outside. You’re afraid of the bees, aren’t you? After that bee stung your toe when you were raking, you got desperate about yellow jackets—that’s what they’re called. You shouldn’t have had on sandals when you were raking. Wear your hiking boots when you rake leaves, if you can’t find another husband to do it for you.’
‘Please stop lecturing me and—”
‘Get your car! What’s the worst that can happen? I have to stand up for a few minutes? It’s not like I’m one of those guards outside Buckingham Palace who has to look straight ahead until he loses consciousness.’
Ann Beattie has contributed to The New Yorker since 1974. She is the recipient of a PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction. The State We’re In: Maine Stories is her latest collection.
16. ‘Control Knobs’ by Claire-Louise Bennett
The narrator of this weird and wonderful story is an eccentric semi-loner obsessed by the broken knobs on her cooker. ‘Control Knobs’ is one of 20 linked stories in Bennett’s debut collection Pond and the textures and tone colours that seep through some of these narratives are remarkable. ‘Most essentially, Pond is an account of the mind as it exists in solitude,’ wrote Philip Maughan in The Paris Review. ‘It attempts to engage with the universe at its fullest and not just the little portion of it we identify as human.’ Sink into Pond if you like stories that sidle up to you from left field.
Belling of course is the main exponent of mini-kitchens and I’m quite certain that when I lived in an attic near the hospital several years ago it was kitted out with a classic Belling model. Belling, by the way, is an English firm which makes complete sense to me because two-ring ovens are synonymous with bedsits and bedsits are quintessentially English in the same way that B&Bs are evocative of a certain kind of grassroots Englishness. One thinks of unmarried people right away, bereft secretaries and threadbare caretakers, and of ironing boards with scorched striped covers forever standing next to the airing-cupboard door at the end of the hallway.
Claire-Louise Bennett’s short fiction and essays have been published in The Moth, The Irish Times and other publications. She was awarded the inaugural White Review Short Story Prize in 2013. Pond is her first book. Bennett lives in Galway, Ireland.