Saba Sams: My top five short stories

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The Boundary by Jhumpa Lahiri

In terms of form, Lahiri’s range is just incredible. Her short story collection Unaccustomed Earth holds stories that almost span the length of a novella, while her latest book Whereabouts is a novel in vignettes. The Boundary, a standalone story published in The New Yorker in 2018, is on the shorter side, yet does so much with so little. It’s about the contrasting lives of two families: one is vacationing in the house and surrounding land which the other family are paid to look after. The story is sun-drenched, moving languorously as a summer bee, so that on first reading small details of violence – tomatoes spoiled in the summer rain, flies that need killing before bedtime – creep in almost unnoticed.

Track by Nicole Flattery

This story is brilliantly weird, and I find myself returning to it all the time. The protagonist’s boyfriend is a celebrity comedian who believes that listening to a laugh track will keep him funny. There’s also a street-corner psychic who happens to be a maid who may or may not be the protagonist herself. It’s full of genuinely hilarious jokes, none of which is told by the comedian boyfriend, but it’s also about isolation and escape. Track is witty, astute and surreal, with one of the greatest last lines I’ve ever read.

Pilgrims by Julie Orringer

I don’t think that Send Nudes would exist if I hadn’t read Julie Orringer’s collection How to Breathe Underwater, which was recommended to me when I was doing my MA. Her stories utilise the distance – in terms of maturity – between her adult readers and her child protagonists so brilliantly, asking how it is that we become the people we are. Pilgrims is the first in that collection, and also my favourite. It follows Ella and the rest of her family, as they go to spend Thanksgiving at a house full of hippies. Ella’s mother is a cancer patient, and has become interested in alternative treatments. What unfolds is dark and feral, a perfectly-formed story about grief and the ways that we cope, or fail to.

Work by Denis Johnson

This story is part road trip and part drug trip, but there’s little point trying to work out which part is which. The lines are blurred to the point that the whole experience of reading it feels like a lucid dream. It’s very short, like most of Jesus’ Son (the collection it appears in), and the plot isn’t so much a plot as a series of wild images. I don’t know how Johnson pulls it off, and yet he does.

Erosive by Ali Smith

This is the short story that got me into short stories. I read it first when I was nineteen in a fiction class. It’s experimental in terms of structure, which was why we looked at it, and for me it completely opened up my understanding of what a short story could look like. It’s almost a prose poem. It’s a love letter to language, and also a love letter to love itself. It’s a story of a woman who finds aphids on her apple tree, and also a woman who is struck by lightning, but actually the lightning is love. I think every writer has a story that changed the way they thought about writing, and this one is mine.



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