In virtually all, though, there is a noticeable lack of formal innovation; many writers here may be drawn to the uncanny, or the liminal or subterranean, but they also still seem fairly convinced of the merits of putting words and sentences in a straightforwardly linear arrangement (there is no equivalent of the PowerPoint chapter of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad).
Allowing for the vagaries of personal taste, or of a piece of writing capturing you in just the right mood, Hensher’s selection is of solidly high quality and his thematic arrangement – Love, Story, Men, Women, War & Politics, Catastrophic Worlds and an Envoi, movingly consisting of a single piece by the late Helen Dunmore – nicely suggestive. But we have learned our lesson from the introduction: we shall not hand him, nor any of his writers, a prize, for fear it stops them writing altogether.
Hensher deserves credit for including in this anthology some of the best of a younger generation of writers alongside established names, and there is much here to recommend. And yet I could not help but return to his introduction and its conviction that the best of “our literature . . . looks abroad, looks at foreigners, looks at the dissimilar and the other, looks hard at other people and not just at ourselves”. I won’t be the only person to stumble over the presumptive “we” that is here figured as gazing outwards at those distant “foreigners”. I hold dual citizenship, am of British and Irish descent, which by Hensher’s measure suggests that I am at once “us” and “them”, similar and “dissimilar”, self and “other”. The version of Britain implied by these kind of binaries – monolithic, essentialist, isolationist – is contradicted by the best of the stories that Hensher has gathered together, which seek to accommodate without erasing different identities and cultures. That seems like a formulation of the contemporary worth defending.
Sometimes — not often — a book comes along that feels like Christmas. A Santa’s sack of goodies to be unwrapped, revealing ever more lovely treats. Philip Hensher’s timely, but timeless, selection of the best short stories from the past 20 years is that kind of book. In fact, his introduction is as enriching as anything that has been published this year...Get this definitive book on your shelves now and make sure it stays there for generations to come because it will tell future readers what now was like and will stay fresh long after we are gone.