Books of the year 2014: The best short stories

A strong year for short fiction thanks to innovators and exciting newcomers

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The Independent Culture

With glorious works from masters of the form, innovators and exciting newcomers, I can't recall a year as strong as 2014 for short fiction. I concur with a colleague who, reviewing Graham Swift's England and Other Stories (Simon and Schuster, £16.99), regretted that the Booker Prize isn't open to story collections. "He knew what he knew about this land to which his back was largely turned… but it was precious little really," Swift writes of one protagonist while his own imagination conjures a panoply of life which makes England feel vast and various.

Some of the howls of indignation which greeted Hilary Mantel's The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher (4th Estate, £14.99) were reminders that small-mindedness remains, in some quarters, an English disease. The first and last stories, both set in 1983, are the best in this collection. The sinister "Sorry to Disturb" takes place in Saudi Arabia while the tense title story unfolds closer to home. "History could always have been otherwise," Mantel writes at its climax.

Rose Tremain's The American Lover (Chatto & Windus, £16.99) pinpoints single moments which transform individual lives. A young woman is seduced by a selfish older man with disastrous consequences while, elsewhere, Tremain distils rural isolation, draws a memorable portrait of Leo Tolstoy and dramatises her characters' search for meaning with elegance and psychological acuity.

The news from across the Atlantic looks bleak as Lorrie Moore paints the autumn landscape of an ageing, divided America in Bark (Faber, £14.99). Her wit and inventiveness mean Moore is unrivalled at cutting to the heart of her subject, whether it's divorce, madness or politics. The standout story, "Wings", pays loose homage to Henry James and, throughout, Moore writes like somebody on whom nothing is lost.

The story which gives Donald Antrim's The Emerald Light in the Air (Granta, £12.99) its exquisite title might be his best, though "Another Manhattan", about a bipolar man's catastrophic attempt to buy his wife a bouquet of flowers, is unforgettable. You wonder why everybody is so unhappy but finish this book glad you found it and grateful to be here.

Margaret Atwood's prose dazzles amid the dark subject matter of Stone Mattress (Bloomsbury, £18.99), especially in the entertaining trilogy based around an elderly fantasy writer's milieu. Keats and Byron are invoked as the Canadian visionary meditates on our accelerating world in a style which fuses the classical and contemporary.

"Now that I have been here for a little while, I can say with confidence that I have never been here before." This is Lydia Davis's story "Bloomington" in its entirety. Can't and Won't (Hamish Hamilton, £16.99) shows Davis using precise language to articulate the kind of ideas and impressions which are usually left to float around the subconscious. She draws on dreams, Gustave Flaubert's letters, and "Local Obits" achieves a peculiar, cumulative profundity.

Three debuts stood out. Colin Barrett tore out of the blocks with Young Skins (Jonathan Cape, £14.99), set among the Irish youths of Glanbeigh: "My town is nowhere you have been but you know its ilk." The bloody, novella-length "Calm with Horses" is rich with haunting surprises and, whether describing desire, a punch-up or playing pool, Barrett's details shine like diamonds in a coal scuttle.

In his first collection, Stay Up With Me (Simon and Schuster £12.99), Tom Barbash finds radiance among the wreckage with tales of love, confusion and estrangement. A charming writer, Barbash draws the reader in with classic American craftsmanship. Even when they break your heart, you want to stay up with these New York stories.

Former-US Marine Phil Klay captures the madness of war, its numb aftermath and dreaded resumption in harrowing, occasionally hilarious stories set in Iraq and America. Nothing is straightforward: "I hadn't believed in the war when it started, though I did believe in government service." The raw power of Redeployment (Canongate, £15.00), and the world's addiction to conflict, make it essential reading.

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