The short story is often regarded – in the UK, at least – as the poor relation of literary genres, not held in as high esteem as the novel, but there is a very special skill involved in crafting a narrative into just a few pages. And when done well – there are few reads as satisfying.
Author Carys Davies has just published her second collection of short stories – The Redemption of Galen Pike – which was selected as a 2013 Northern Writers Award winner to support its development. Based in Lancaster, Davies has been writing short stories – very successfully, many of them have won major prizes – for several years and her latest collection is an outstanding example of the genre. Each story is a perfectly distilled, intense slice of life and includes the exquisite Bonnet which features Charlotte Brontë who makes an ill-fated journey to London to meet her handsome young publisher George Smith.
He does not reciprocate her romantic feelings and Davies describes their awkward encounter with such delicacy, empathy and economy that the reader is almost able to feel Charlotte’s acute embarrassment as their own.
“That is one of my favourites in the collection,” says Davies. “I have always loved the Brontës and I was re-reading their letters when I just had an image of Charlotte getting on a train in Leeds and going to London; this small Northern woman going off into this strange far away place. I didn’t know why she was going at that point or who she was going to see. Then I just started writing. It is really how I write my stories – I don’t know what the story is going to be and they generally end up a very long way from where they started. Perhaps I was particularly intrigued by the relationship with George Smith because in short stories it’s about what’s not on the page. The story came out of those spaces and silences.”
Silence is one of the key themes of the title story in the collection which is set in the small township of Piper City in the American West during the Gold Rush. A convict, Galen Pike, is incarcerated in the jailhouse awaiting his hanging and is visited every day by Quaker spinster Patience Haig, “a thin, plain woman… her features small and unremarkable, except for her nose which was damaged and lopsided”. Very little happens except that Patience sits quietly in Pike’s cell knitting, presenting him with her calm non-judgmental presence. The attention to detail that Davies brings to the story conjures up such a vivid picture of a harsh and remote place where life is cheap and the finer aspects of humanity are rarely revealed.
“I am drawn to lonely places,” says Davies. “There is a sort of clarity and drama about them. And the choices that people are facing are somehow starker. It is life intensified which is what short stories are interested in.”
The stories in the collection are all very different from each other – Davies creates a whole new, entirely believable, world for each one. However, there are some unifying themes which Davies identifies.
“There is love and death and morality in quite a lot of them – and where all those things might overlap. I am interested in all those things – although I don’t necessarily set out to write about them.”
It took Davies seven years to write this collection – her first, Some New Ambush was published in 2007 – but she remains committed to the genre and thinks that attitudes towards it are beginning to change. “Many people do still think of the short story as something slight and unsatisfying but I think these are exciting times,” she says.
“A lot of the big literary prizes have recently been won by short story writers and I think people are starting to realise that short stories are not slight at all – they are amazing, intense, urgent things.”
• The Redemption of Galen Pike, published by Salt, £9.99