If you’re a short story writer, chances are you’ve got your eyes on the O. Henry Prize. Named in memory of author William Sydney Porter (whose pen name was O. Henry) in 1919, the award celebrates the best short fiction in America. Each year, the winning stories are published in a comprehensive collection for news enthusiasts and those who secretly want their own work to appear between the covers.
During the fall break, my brother and I were walking past a favorite neighborhood bookstore and stopped to admire the window. I pointed to the case, which still has the best covers, and told it I would be back to buy the 2021 collection in a few days. Acting quickly, he told me he had to buy another book. A few minutes later, however, he hadn’t just gotten a new read – he also had my new copy of the collection in hand. Now it’s only fair that I share my favorites with you.
I’ve reviewed an author’s short story collection before, but this review introduces a new exercise: reading a set of 20 amazing, yet very individual, stories, and trying to figure out how they all fit together. The authors featured in this collection are versatile: I immediately recognized some of their names, and others are now part of my recent search history to find more of their work.
I have to admit that there is some attenuated attention but also new attention required in reading a short story collection with the writing of several authors. On the one hand, reading these different short stories allows you to briefly enter the life of another narrator and then escape from it. You don’t necessarily have to worry about the character arcs, storylines, or place names for each story. That eye closing that starts to happen late at night when you’re reading a book, tucked under the covers, away from your icy-blast fan, isn’t as damaging as it is with a novel. You may miss a moment and feel like it won’t be the end of the world.
By contrast, you almost have to be hyper-aware at the start of every new story, constantly noting a new author’s approach and reminding yourself that the world you occupied a few pages ago no longer exists. Here, the proposed new story is exactly that: new. While this is a unique challenge, I find it can actually make reading more enjoyable. When you least expect it, 20 Breakouts in New Settings challenge you to think critically. It’s inevitable, however, that the stories will start to merge, and you almost hope the writers talk to each other somehow. Maybe that’s why I turned to the collection in the window.
All of these stories are fantastic, and it’s clear why Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the collection’s very first guest editor, selected them. Some grapple with issues of love and loss, others grapple with public scandals and shame. Some even recognize the temporary sadness of ordinary circumstances, and how this can be reshaped by the kindness of strangers. What all of these writers do, however, is distill a human experience to his bare bones. The brevity of each story leaves no room for excess – it makes each point necessary for the introduction of the next.
Unlike a novel, describing each of these stories in detail does a disservice to what is already short. I think the best way to demonstrate the power of this writing, before you’ve read the collection, is by transporting yourself to key words and defining moments that I think captured the essence of each story, and some something I wanted more or less in each. Let’s start with a few of my favorites:
Emma Cline’s “White Noise”
The story in three words: Hiding places, disappearance, stories
Key moment : âBut it quickly got boring. He assumed everyone felt the same, assumed everyone was bored the same way. It all seemed to be happening on the wrong side of a telescope, far and warped – stories set in hotel rooms, hallways of restaurants that had closed almost a decade ago. Bar 89 no longer existed. The girl said he had called her once from her cell phone, told her he was standing in front of Lady M and did she think it was totally mean if he walked inside and had a cake ? “
I wanted more / less: I wanted a more spiritual dialogue. I wanted less repetitions of visuals that feature the same types of scenes.
“Witness” by Jamel Brinkley
The story in three words: Soup, escape, blindness
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Key moment : Perhaps he also sensed that she was moving, around and abroad, or further and further into the tales of the past, escaping with her books to places and times that seemed closed to anyone except herself. From her appearance as she conducted her arcane scholarship, it seemed easy to pass the days like this. At least until her husband or brother comes home, breaking their loneliness and peace.
I wanted more / less: I wanted more explanation of the mother’s role in the story and her connection to her children. I would have liked less generalization from the narrator on the state of health of his sister who ultimately requires the most attention in the plot.
“The Things We Worried About When I Was Ten” by David Rabe
The story in three words: Discovery, neighborhoods, expectations
Key moment : “What could one of our mothers do to one of us, we had to ask, given the strangeness of their foreign love and neglect, those moments of distraction where they lost? the trace of everything, even themselves, as they gazed into worries that were all their own and greater than anything we could ever hope to imagine? “
I wanted more / less: I wished for more reflective moments from the narrator for each incredibly detailed and narrated action or scene. I would have liked less paragraphs in which the narrator escaped the brilliant repetition “We worried about x” … they became too rare at the end and I would have preferred to keep this structure
“Malliga Homes” by Sindya Bhanoo
The story in three words: Generations, architecture, nostalgia
Key moment : âI imagine my daughter’s daughter in a butcher’s shop, cutting dead fish with bulging eyes for live fish with bulging eyes. I almost comment that I know why Veena is so lost, how she needs her mother, still needs her mother. But again, I remember my husband, how he gently warned me to quit. I keep my mouth shut.
Wished for more / less: I wished for more reflections from the narrator on her precise feelings. I wanted less brevity and minimization of importance in the dialogue between the narrator and his daughter.
“Color and Light” by Sally Rooney
The story in three words: Ephemeral, readers, unspoken
Key moment : âHe saw this separation with her – this separation which he himself spontaneously announced and called into existence – like an excruciating ordeal, almost physical pain. He can’t believe he goes all the way, actually standing on the couch and turning away to the door they entered through. Why is everything so strange now? ”
I wanted more / less: I wanted at least a little more foreshadowing of the final and gripping scene. I wish we had put less emphasis on the role of the narrator’s older brother who obscures the individuality of his own character.
Are you here? Are you in these stories? Can you imagine how each one informs the power of the one who comes after and reexamines the one of the story that preceded it? I hope you will walk to your local bookstore, near our campus or far away, and find this collection sneaking out of the library.
Bates Crawford is a senior at Trinity. His book column, âA Devil’s Bookshelf,â is published every two months. Bates recommends books to his classmates for some free time reading when (or if) they have some free time in their busy Duke life.