In this beautiful and vast collection, Victoria Hislop has picked her glittering line-up of authors to include Nobel Laureates, Man Booker, Pulitzer and Costa prize winners. Alice Munro, Hilary Mantel, Penelope Lively, Virginia Woolf, Ali Smith, Daphne du Maurier and Margaret Atwood are some of the notable writers included. Sectioned loosely into themes of love, loss and the lives of women, these stories are all written by women and represent some of the finest modern writers in the English language. Otherwise, the scope is wide, rich and often unexpected: a collection of fluffy chick-lit this is not.
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Perhaps as an early means to defy preconceptions, Hislop picks Katherine Mansfield's incomplete "An Unmarried Man's Story" as her appetiser. Employing a male narrator and a modernist structure, Mansfield's abstract style is challenging but rewarding. Her fragmented glimpses of past and present create an authentic circularity in the search for reality. Other writers also use the male narrator, but no one as frankly as AM Homes, whose brilliant story opens with a man analysing his manhood: "I am sitting naked on a kitchen chair, staring at it."
Darkly comic, Dorothy Parker's monologue "The Telephone Call" has a woman obsess about a call to an uninterested lover: so familiar and excruciating, but it blows Bridget out the water. Doris Lessing's aptly named "A Man and Two Women" involves a woman drawn into a relationship between two friends: an unsettlingly voyeuristic study of married life. Most memorable, perhaps, is the mercurial love of a mother, galloping on a horse wielding a sword to save her doomed, impassive daughter in Angela Carter's subversive "The Bloody Chamber".
The stories cross borders of distance as well as genre and time. Yiyun Li's "Love in the Marketplace" explores an uneasy but fierce love between mother and a forsaken daughter, each clinging to the dignity of their life, after being sidelined by their rural Chinese culture.
Stylistic experimentation is not overlooked and in "The Thing Around Your Neck", Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writes about immigrant experience in the second person, a device that lends a fresh potency where it might irritate in a novel. Surreal and symbolic, Anna Kavan's daring story starts with a visit from "an unusually large, handsome leopard" whose appearance begins a compulsion for the unattainable.
If perfection exists in the form it comes from Alice Munro who proves herself worthy of her recent Nobel Prize. In "Miles City, Montana" and "Gravel", Munro reveals the devastation caused by "all our natural, and particular, mistakes".
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