Books: Steps through the narrow door into another world alternative world

Once dismissed as commercial poison, short stories have bounced back to offer readers a spring tonic. Carol Birch chooses the pick of the crop
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The World's

Smallest Unicorn

by Shena Mackay

Jonathan Cape, pounds 12.99, 223pp

Lying in Bed

by Polly Samson

Virago, pounds 14.99, 213pp

Other Stories

by Ali Smith

Granta, pounds 9.99, 177pp

Some Rain Must Fall

by Michael Faber

Canongate, pounds 8.99, 242pp

THE SHORT-STORY collection has traditionally been seen by publishers as a commercial non-starter, only to be considered in the case of well- established sellers. Happily, this attitude seems to have been undergoing a gradual change, and this spring sees a fine crop that amply illustrates the power and diversity of a sometimes under-rated medium. That so many of the current offerings come from new voices is further proof of a new confidence in the form.

Shena Mackay, of course, is an old hand. Most of the stories in Smallest Unicorn have already appeared elsewhere. Fans will find here all the Mackay hallmarks: mischievous wit, merciless lampooning of just about everyone, sudden bursts of brilliant description. Here, for example, from the title story, is a hot day in south London: "traffic and people pushing buggies hung about with children toiled up and down the hill in fumy sunshine splintered by the drills of roadworks and thumped by music from passing cars. The engine of a parked lorry throbbed like a thousand headaches and the sirens of a posse of police cars swooped and looped the loop; the leaden air had an aggressive edge."

The beauty is in the detail with Shena Mackay; I'm not so sure about the overall design. Her stories sometimes have the feel of truncated novels, and she spends a lot of time filling the reader in on background details. Potted biographies, quick character sketches and hurried asides abound. Writers, media people, well-heeled trendy professionals - these are the denizens of Mackay's hard-edged, crowded and often eccentric tales.

Mackay's stories are traditional, in that she is not trying to push the boundaries of the form. So, too are, those in Polly Samson's debut Lying in Bed, though with more of a sense of constraint. In the best, "Wasted Time", the violence of her parents' marriage is seen through the eyes of a lonely child, whose best friends are the children "next door" for whom she makes sandwiches and to whom she reads. The fact that "next door" is the graveyard is poignant rather than macabre.

Samson is a sympathetic and observant narrator, much concerned with relationships and the ticking of biological clocks. Occasionally, the stories echo each other. In the title story, unhappy Sally, coming to terms with the fact that she must lie in the bed she has made for herself with a partner she does not love, weaves a fantasy around the couple sitting at the next table, who in turn become the focus of the following story, "The Mermaid's Purse". These are clever, elegant pieces, complex, compact and memorable.

For sheer inventiveness and endless variety, Michel Faber's first collection, Some Rain Must Fall, takes the prize. From the absurdities of real life to strange science-fiction scenarios, in locations throughout and beyond the world, he weaves fascinating stories of the mundane and the bizarre. But though the unexpected is immanent even in the most normal setting, sheer novelty for its own sake is not Faber's overriding concern. Rather, he harnesses the surreal and off-beat in order to express something quite profound and touching. His sense of wonder and big-heartedness calls to mind the better stories of Ray Bradbury, and he has a wonderful ability to push a whimsy to its extreme with magical results.

In "Toy Story", God is a lonely child who finds a discarded planet while mucking about in the trash at the back of an abandoned universe. God's love for his treasure creeps into his dreams: "Tired out from playing all day, he would notice the little blue-green world through eyes already half closed. Usually he fell asleep then, and dreamed of travelling there, shrunk down to the appropriate size... in these dreams, his tiny grown-up self was constantly surrounded by other people, driven by a mission; and yet, perversely, he craved aloneness and the freedom to play in silence."

Another bold and sensitive writer is Ali Smith, who has already produced one fine novel and a previous collection of stories. Other Stories is full of slight, small pieces, concerned less with events than frames of mind and feelings.

Smith has a talent for stringing together seemingly unrelated events, which defy rational justification but nevertheless feel absolutely right together; as in "More Than One Story", in which an old man recalls the death of his brother and a girl relives an early sexual encounter. Neighbours linked only by a cheery hello, their unity is an impressionistic affair, one feels, and deeply intuited.

Smith's prose, simple, direct and loaded, is a joy. Like the Tardis, these delicate, exquisite stories contain far more than their size would appear to allow. Her generosity of spirit excludes no one and her work is imbued with the knowledge of transience and human vulnerability; themes she returns to again and again.

The best kinds of short stories leave the reader feeling that they could not have been told in any other way. Nothing needs to exist beyond the boundaries of the story itself, though much may be implied. In Ali Smith's case, less is more. Taken with the rest of the crop, this is proof indeed that the short story is alive and thriving.