Psst. I have a confession to make.
Are you ready for this?
I fell out of love with the short story. Not recently, but over the span of about fifteen years. As with a former flame, I moved on to bigger and bulkier things (in this case, novels and works of nonfiction), without so much as a glance backwards. It’s funny, though, because I wrote short stories for fun all the time as a kid. In fact, that’s where my love of writing was born.
As I became aware of this, I knew I had to make a change. So, this year, I made it one of my bazillion goals to read more short stories. And I’m proud to say that I actually upheld this one. I read Jhumpa Lahiri’s Whereabouts and Dantiel Moniz’s Milk Blood Heat this past summer.
There were even creative nonfiction pieces that piqued my interest. I realized how much I’d been missing out by overlooking an entire genre. And a mighty one at that.
On a recent visit to a local bookstore, Lily King’s Five Tuesdays in Winter popped out at me. I’d never heard of King, but it seemed like a fitting final read of 2021 given the title and artsy cover. And it fell into the short story genre — bingo!
In true hygge fashion, I lit my candles, buried myself under a blanket, and listened to the pitter-patter of the rain as I read most of Five Tuesdays in Winter. Here’s a lowdown on what to expect from this book, and a few of my takeaways.
King is no stranger to the short story, having written multiple New York Times bestselling collections in the past. Her newest book is a compilation of stories that are new, alongside those that have been published in literary magazines. In it, she explores the parent-child relationship, forbidden romance, and loss — whether it be through death or divorce.
She employs a tone that is morose and mysterious, making each narrative feel like a dreary winter day itself.
There’s the story of a teenage boy, left home alone with two college-age male babysitters while his parents jet off to Europe; a woman’s blooming obsession with her friend’s father after interacting with him at a bridge game; and a German widow who vacations with her daughter to the North Sea, hoping to break through her impenetrable exterior.
King has the ability to take mundane events and charge them with layers of complexity, grief, and surprise. It’s through the slow unraveling of each story that we end with a bang, a burn, or a blow at the end, asking ourselves, “Wait what?!”
She isn’t afraid to bend conventions or explore more taboo sides of the human experience. I had visceral reactions to certain parts of this book, just because she takes us to places that we tend to turn away from.
Her writing breaks into poetic cadence at times, further easing the reading experience and relating us in some way to each situation. Even if we aren’t entirely conscious of what that may be. None of the stories seems to be set in the present day, further adding to their sense of distance.
And with stories set in the coastal regions of Maine or the frigid environs of Northern Europe, we are transported into worlds that feel as remote as the characters that inhabit them.
King proves herself to be one of those writers whose writing process would be fascinating to examine. How much does she draw from her own experiences? Does she have a ritual that brings her into her writing headspace? How does living in Maine impact the sorts of characters she conjures up? What helps her determine the direction she’s going to take in each story?
Exploring the Short Story
As I read King’s book, I began thinking more about the concept of the short story itself. I noticed how this form of writing doesn’t necessarily need to give us closure. In fact, some of the best short stories I’ve read don’t have resolved endings. Instead, they leave us with more questions.
Endless possibilities. And furthermore, the characters’ motivations, thoughts, etc. propel the stories more so than a concrete plotline. We become deeply invested in the characters, but also don’t quite understand their motives.
Short stories require a careful level of precision — a way of fleshing out the narrative at hand without sharing too much or too little. They bypass a lot of the buildup we see in longer works and take us straight to the heart, the “Aha!” of what’s going on.
Perhaps my falling out of love with the short story for so long has to do with these phenomena. For wanting happy endings, predictable characters, and easily navigable storylines. But, as we all know, life promises none of these to us. And I find solace in stories that give us a glimpse of the messiness and madness of this human experience. Stories that lead us to the realm of ambiguity.
So, I’m here to declare that I’ve rekindled the spark that so long ago fizzled between myself and the short story. I’m making it my goal to not just read, but write, more short stories going into 2022. Because we, as readers and writers, know that there’s so much to explore and put to words.
Deepening that relationship to craft can help us express feelings and questions we may be harboring within. It can make us more comfortable with visiting the depths of our emotional landscape.
If you’re looking for a quick yet thought-provoking read this winter season (or summer, if you’re in the southern hemisphere), take a peek at Lily King’s newest. And follow your creative impulses, wherever they may take you. Happy reading and Happy New Year!