I am one of those who believe (and have often said) that writing a good short story is more difficult than writing a good novel because a short story writer has to create believable characters and plots wholly within the limited number of pages he allows himself to get the job done. He has to capture the engagement and imagination of his readers, and he has to do it quickly. That is why it is always such a welcome event when a favorite novelist of mine decides to join the ranks of short story writers, or in the unusual case of Graham Swift, returns to that genre after an absence of almost thirty years.
Swift's England and Other Stories is a remarkable collection of twenty-five stories about people who, regardless of their age, have reached a point in their lives where regret and self-doubt are something they confront every day. These are people living in fear that their lives may never again be as good as they were at some point in the past. Not only do they fear that possibility, they feel sure that it is the truth.
What makes this collection a bit unusual is that none of the stories have been previously published elsewhere. These are all new stories (written, I'm guessing, within the amount of time it would normally have taken Swift to produce his next novel), and taken as a whole they present the diversity of a country that is all too often confined to its stereotypes in the minds of foreigners. There are stories about newlyweds, about elderly couples who have been together for decades, about men and women grieving their lost spouses, about grown children still trying to figure out exactly who their parents were, about cheating spouses, about minorities who self-identify as "English" despite how others perceive them, and even about lesbian lovers who are key workers in a sperm bank. And that is far from all.
Among my favorites is "Yorkshire," in which an elderly couple (71 and 72 years old) sleep across the hall from each other for the first time after the man has been accused by his adult daughter of unspeakable crimes committed against her when she was a child. In just a few pages, Swift engulfs the reader in the pain and anguish that fill those two bedrooms but leaves it up to his readers to judge the truth of the woman's charges. Another favorite is "Fusilli," which tells of the man who receives a phone call from his soldier son while shopping in his local grocery store. He marvels at the technology that makes such a thing possible, all the while feeling uneasy about their conversation.
Do read these stories in the order they are presented because, layer by layer, they add up to a cohesive picture of England as she is today, one in which it is easily imagined that characters from the various stories just might one day cross paths and enjoy each other's company - or not. They seem that real.