Willesden Herald New Short Stories 5
  Edited by Stephen Moran

Pretend Genius Press

"But you don’t come, and time without you slows and thickens, makes me work hard to pass through it. Time becomes segmented. Each piece is made from a question: how long have you been gone? How far away is her grave? How long would it take to get there and back? How long has it been dark. How long should I wait? There is an equation in there somewhere, an adding up and taking away that will tell me what to do."

(From Teresa Stenson, Blue Raincoat)

Reviewed by Arja Salafranca

This volume collects together the 12 finalists for the annual Willesden Herald short story competition. As with any anthology some will resonate and stand out more than others. Surprisingly for an anthology of stories selected from a wide variety of entrants, there does appear to be a unifying theme of interiority, meditation, threads of isolation and ways of dealing with grief running through the majority of these stories. What's remarkable too, is that many of these stories deal with tight, closed worlds, each world perfectly explored and described, and yet also, equally insular. While this feature is true of many short stories – the genre is one of brevity and a tight collection of characters – this seems especially pronounced in this selection. Perhaps the fact that many of the characters are locked up within worlds of grief and sadness lends weight to my overall impression. However this is by no means a negative comment: many of the stories were gripping, interesting, worthy pieces which linger on long after the initial reading, surely the mark of a story that rises above the rest.

A diluted sense of grief opens the collection in the first story, YJ Zhu's Apartment in which we observe the comings and goings of elderly Li An, who has lived in one room in Beijing for forty-five years. Her husband died in the Tiananmen Square riots, an unfortunate bystander, and her son is distant. On the day of the story, Li An is lured by a brash young man to an apartment block, he is trying to sell a home in Inner Mongolia. But memories subsume Li An as he attempts his sales talk, and in the end she will return to her cement block of a home, her company that of Old Wang, the two tied together by their losses, and the familiar comfort of old routines. An achingly, beautiful and poignant story with author YJ Zhu delicately leading us through to an inevitable ending.

Meanwhile, in Nemone Thorne's Dancing with the Flag Man, we're in a teenage world, a world where innocence is about to torn apart. Elizabeth is on holiday at a caravan park with her cousin Chantelle and her Auntie Janice. There's menace around, as someone or a group of someones is going around murdering dogs. A tight edge of fear encircles the people in the caravan park. A sensitive teenager, while all this is taking place, Elizabeth also hears about the local "loony" a man who takes time away from his family in a hut on the beach and may be blamed; while at the same time she is swooning under the attentions of local handsome boy Jon. The story builds toward climax and crescendo. Realisation dawns in Elizabeth, and in us as readers, and we know life will never be the same and that fragile line between innocence and adulthood has been breached.

Death is a presence in the following outstanding stories: Adnan Mahmutovic's Gusul, Mary O'Shea's Out of Season and AJ Ashworth's Overnight Miracles.

In Mahmutovic's affecting and moving Gusul we follow Emina, a Bosnian immigrant to Sweden, childcarer by day. At night she returns to the apartment she shares with her sick, elderly mother, a woman who will die during the story, with Emina's cool reactions forming a backbone to the actions of the story. In O'Shea's Out of Season a middle-aged couple, Rita and Charlie, take an out of season holiday in Salthill. Charlie's dying and this holiday is a last gasp attempt to create memories, all taken in a rather dutiful way. A quiet couple, this holiday, with its air of we must do this and that in order to enjoy the views and the beach, in the end turns out to be quietly redemptive. A memorable piece.

As is Ashworth's Overnight Miracles, in which a woman in the grip of grieving, having just lost her husband, is desperate enough to try and coax him back to life with the help of a woman on the phone who has advertised her services. With the recently dead man halfway between "one place and the next" there is still time enough for the grieving widow to pull him back, but "It's all about feeling, about desire. You've got to absolutely want it." Incantations, rituals, the burning of candles and fervent desire follow the unnamed narrator through her quest in an utterly believable story that pulls you tautly along.

Also incredibly moving for me was The Place by David Frankel. Lenny has never had a job, has lived quietly at home with his possessive mother, sheltered from the world by her. His refuge is a "place" at the bottom of the garden, reading his father's letters to a woman who was not his mother and remembering the summer he got to know Marianne, a young neighbour. This poignant story is suffused with sadness and longing, a mediation on loneliness and stifled lives.

Other stories deal with failed immigration in Alex Barr's Homecoming, the theme of grief and losing loved ones is again explored in Teresa Stenson's Blue Raincoat and Michael Coleman's The Bedroom, a peon to love. Adrian Sells in Thingummy Wotsit manages to make us sympathise with the lot of a man in hospital losing his memory to senility, while in Set Dance Angela Sherlock takes us to rural Ireland and the stigma of illegitimacy. In the final story Emma Martin explores a day in the life of Victor, in the eponymously named story, of a man protesting outside an anti-abortion clinic.


Arja Salafranca is a short story writer, poet, travel writer and personal essayist. Author of The Thin Line (Modjaji Books 2010), a debut collection of fiction, as well as two poetry collections, edited two anthologies, winner of the Sanlam award for fiction and poetry, and the Dalro award for poetry. Lifestyle and books editor at The Sunday Independent (Johannesburg).
Arja's other Short Reviews: Best American Short Stories 2010

Susan Millar DuMars "Lights in the Distance"

Courttia Newland " A Book of Blues"
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Editor Stephen Moran is  from Dublin but currently lives and works in London. He writes fiction and poetry and also reads for the Willesden Herald international short story competition, which he started in 2005 for a bit of fun.

Y. J. Zhu, Teresa Stenson, Nemone Thornes, Adnan Mahmutovic, Alex Barr, Mary O'Shea, A. J. Ashworth, Michael Coleman, David Frankel, Adrian Sells, Angela Sherlock, Emma Martin.s