The inaugural London Short Story Festival starts in a couple of weeks. Sadly I’m unable to go, but my eye was caught by their search for “the best British short story”. (You can read more about it here and an article by the organiser here.)
Now I’m normally rubbish at stuff like this. I struggle to make up my mind what my favourite David Bowie song is, let alone what my favourite song ever is. I can’t decide which REM album I think is best, never mind what’s my favourite album of all time. When a fellow member of the Asylum asked me recently who my top ten favourite authors were, I stopped when I had named 15.
But I thought I’d enter into the spirit of what they’re asking and have a good think about it. It’s a shame that it’s just British authors or else I’d definitely have chosen Guy de Maupassent’s Boule de Suif. (Having said that I might have opted for Flying Carpets by Steven Millhauser. Or perhaps They’re Not Your Husband by Raymond Carver.)
Anyway – British authors. I could have plumped for Roald Dahl’s William and Mary about a man who donates his body to medical science after his death. Or An Interesting Condition by Helen Simpson, which is set in an ante-natal class. What about Jon McGregor’s Wires, about an accident on the motorway. Or, or, or…
In the end I’ve decided to send in a nomination for by Angela Carter’s The Courtship of Mr Lyon.* A man is stranded in the snow and manages to make his way to a mansion. After being given hospitality and help from Mr Lyon – who it transpire is an actual lion – he leaves his daughter behind whilst he heads to London to sort out his business affairs. Mr Lyon falls in love with the daughter and almost pines away when she returns to the capital to be with her father.
The stories in Carter’s collection The Bloody Chamber, in which this was first published, all retold fairytales, and althoughThe Courtship of Mr Lyon is based on Beauty and the Beast, Carter manages to create a fresh and compelling piece of fiction. It isn’t one of those stories that relies on a twist at the end – in fact, it’s a fairly conventional narrative, allowing for the fact that it has a talking lion that has a spaniel for a butler. But Carter skillfully moves it towards a dramatic, satisfying ending, whilst also raising questions of what it means to be human.
It’s also a story that speaks not only of romantic love, but also of the relationship between a father and his daughter. Like all the stories in The Bloody Chamber, it’s beautifully written and as with the best magical realism writing, this piece has as much to say about real life as it does about the magical world that it creates.
*I fully reserve the right to say something different next time I’m asked the question!