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"The Best Short Stories 2021" collection allows readers to explore 20 beautifully-imagined worlds

If you’re a short story writer, chances are you have your eyes set on The O. Henry Prize. Named in remembrance of author William Sydney Porter (whose pen name was O. Henry) in 1919, the Prize celebrates the best short fiction in America. Each year, the winning stories are published in a comprehensive collection for short story lovers and those who secretly wish their own work would appear between the covers. 

Over fall break, my brother and I were walking by a favorite neighborhood bookstore, and we stopped to admire the window display. I pointed at the case, which always boasts the best covers, and told him I would return to buy the 2021 collection in a few days. Acting quickly, he told me he had to buy another book. A few minutes later, though, he hadn’t only secured a new read — he also had my new copy of the collection in hand. Now, it’s only fitting that I share my favorites with you.

I’ve previously reviewed a short story collection by one author, but this review introduces a new exercise: reading a set of 20 incredible, but very individual stories, and trying to understand how they all fit together. The authors featured in this collection are multitalented: I recognized some of their names immediately, and others are now part of my recent search history to find more of their work. 

I have to admit that there’s a certain kind of attention alleviated but also a new attention demanded in reading a short story collection with the writing of several authors. On the one hand, reading these different short stories allows you to briefly enter another narrator’s life and then escape it. You don’t necessarily have to concern yourself with the character arcs, the plotlines, or the place names for every single story. That eye-closing that starts to happen late at night when you’re reading a book, tucked under the covers, safe from your fan spitting out ice cold air, is not as detrimental as it is for a novel. You can miss a moment and still feel like it will not be the end of the world.

By contrast, though, you almost have to be hyper-aware at the start of each new story, constantly noting the approach of a new author and reminding yourself that the world you once occupied a few pages ago no longer exists. Here, the new story offered is exactly that: new. While this is a unique challenge, I find that it can actually make the reading more enjoyable. When you least expect it, the 20 escapes into new settings challenge you to think critically. It is inevitable, though, that the stories start to merge, and you almost hope that the authors are somehow talking to each other. Maybe that’s why I gravitated to the collection in the window. 

All of these stories are fantastic, and it’s clear why Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the very first guest editor for the collection, selected them. Some entertain questions of love and loss, others grapple with public scandals and shame. A few even recognize the temporary bleakness of ordinary circumstances, and how that can be reshaped by the kindness of strangers. What all of these authors do, though, is distill a human experience to its bare bones. The brevity of each story leaves no room for excess — it makes each point necessary for the introduction of the next. 

Unlike a novel, describing each of these stories in detail does a disservice to what is already short. I think the best way to demonstrate the power of this writing, before you have read the collection, is to transport you to key words and notable moments that I felt captured the essence of each story, and something I wished for more or less of in each. Let’s start with some of my favorites:

“White Noise” by Emma Cline

The story in three words: Hideaways, demise, narratives 

Key moment: “But it had quickly become boring. He assumed everyone had felt the same way, assumed everyone was similarly bored. It had all seemed to occur at the wrong end of a telescope, far away and distorted—tales set in hotel rooms, hallways of restaurants that had closed almost a decade ago. Bar 89 no longer existed. The girl was saying he had called her once from his cell phone, told her he was standing out in front of Lady M and did she think it was totally naughty if he went inside and got a cake?”

I wished for more of/less of: I wished for more witty dialogue. I wished for less repetition of visuals that set the same kinds of scenes. 

“Witness” by Jamel Brinkley

The story in three words: Soup, escape, blindness

Key moment: “​​Maybe he also sensed she was moving on, around and abroad, or further and further back into accounts of the past, escaping with her books to places and times that seemed closed to anyone but herself. From the way she looked as she conducted her arcane scholarship, it seemed easeful to pass the days like that. At least until her husband or brother came home, breaking her loneliness and her peace.”

I wished for more of/less of: I wished for more of an explanation about the mother’s role in the story and her connection to her children. I wished for less generalizing on the part of the narrator about his sister’s medical condition that eventually demands the most attention in the plot.

“Things We Worried About When I Was Ten” by David Rabe

The story in three words: Discovery, neighborhoods, expectations

Key moment: “What might any of our mothers do to any of us, we had to ask, given the strangeness of their love and their stranger neglect, those moments of distraction when they lost track of everything, even themselves, as they stared into worries that were all their own and bigger than anything we could hope to fathom?”

I wished for more of/less of: I wished for more of the narrator’s moments of reflection for each incredibly detailed, recounted action or scene. I wished for fewer paragraphs in which the narrator fell out of the brilliant repetition “We worried about x”... they became too scarce at the end and I would have preferred preserving that structure 

“Malliga Homes” by Sindya Bhanoo

The story in three words: Generations, architecture, nostalgia 

Key moment: “I imagine my daughter’s daughter as a butcher, chopping dead fish with bulging eyes for living fish with bulging eyes. I nearly comment that I know why Veena is so lost, how she neede her mother, still needs her mother. But once again, I remember my husband, the way he’d gently warn me to stop. I keep my mouth shut.”

I wished for more of/less of: I wished for more of the narrator’s reflections on her precise feelings. I wished for less brevity and downplaying of significance in the dialogue between the narrator and her daughter.

“Color and Light” by Sally Rooney

The story in three words: Transience, drives, unspoken

Key moment: “He experiences this parting with her—this parting he himself announced spontaneously and called into existence—as an excruciating ordeal, almost a physical pain. He can’t quite believe he’s going through with it, actually standing upright from the sofa and turning away toward the door they entered through. Why is everything so strange now?” 

I wished for more of/less of: I wished for at least a bit more foreshadowing of the final, striking scene. I wished for less emphasis placed on the role of the narrator’s older brother which clouded the individuality of his own character.  

Are you there? Are you in these stories? Can you imagine how each informs the power of the one that comes next, and reexamines that of the story that came before? I hope you will walk to your local bookstore, nearby our campus or far, and find this collection peeking out of the bookshelf. 

Bates Crawford is a Trinity senior. Her book column, “A Devil’s Bookshelf,” runs bimonthly. Bates recommends books to her fellow students for free-time reading when (or if) they have spare time in their busy Duke lives.

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