Book review: The Story: Love, Loss And The Lives Of Women

Nobel prize winner Alice Munro features in The Story. Picture: AP
Nobel prize winner Alice Munro features in The Story. Picture: AP
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LIKE a good iTunes library, the charm of a collection of short stories should be that you can always flick through and find the perfect tale for the mood you’re in.

The Story: Love, Loss And The Lives Of Women

Edited by Victoria Hislop

Head Of Zeus, £20

So it is frustrating to discover that Victoria Hislop’s literary playlist is firmly stuck on emo. Her new anthology is a handsome, dictionary-sized collection of 100 stories by female writers from Virginia Woolf to new Nobel prize winner Alice Munro. But rather than reflect the vast variety of emotions that those writers conjured up elsewhere, for the most part Hislop’s selection runs the gamut from the depressed and disappointed to the bitterly sardonic.

A novelist and prolific short story writer herself, Hislop complains in the introduction that often there is “no particular entry point into an anthology (unless you are happy to read them in the order they appear, something I usually resisted)” – a confession that bizarrely implies that only a fool would imagine that careful thought had gone into the chronology of a collection.

In this case it hardly matters where you begin – although the book is thematically divided into love, loss and lives, the same sombre mood largely dominates all three.

That’s not to say that Hislop’s selection doesn’t include many brilliant pieces of writing, from Dorothy Parker’s desperate longing for a phone call – “please, God, let him telephone me now… Don’t laugh God… This is bad, bad suffering” – to Angela Carter’s feminist reworking of Bluebeard, which glitters as darkly as the murderous husband’s wedding gift to his young bride – a choker of rubies “like an extraordinarily precious slit throat”.

Happiness writes white, yet there are writers who have managed the miracle of capturing it, in more than mere glimpses, upon the page. Hislop simply hasn’t chosen to include more than a handful of those kinds of tales. Which is a pity, because we turn to literature not just to empathise with all the ways that hopes, ambitions and love affairs can fail. We also want to be uplifted and to see how such things succeed.