My complaint about the Hugo Awards 2014 Best Short Story was that the winner was mediocre literary fiction, which raises the question – “What is good literary fiction?” So I asked a few Facebook friends to recommend some literary short stories they loved.

I’ve read one so far The School of English: available for free online from the London Review of Books. It’s a corker, but I’m not surprised – it’s by Wolf Hall author Hilary Mantel.  The story follows the fate of immigrant live-in cleaner Marcella, who is left to handle her employer’s delinquent teenage son while the family go away on ski break.

‘Beneath those houses,’ the butler said, ‘you should see what goes on’. No one suspects the half of it. The whole earth is dug out. Spaciousness beneath. The panic room is seven times the size of this one. The whole of London can fall down around them and yet their freezer is fully stocked. All showers are multi-jet steam cabinets, plus the kitchen has coffee machine built in, ice machine, temperature-controlled cabinet for wine storage, sous vide machine with vacuum sealer, and an air filtration system that is suitable for allergy sufferers.’

The story, for me, created an incredible sense of panic and powerlessness. The prose is nicely written; the sentences, although long, are well-structured. The writing style is  a bit ‘mannered’, e.g.

At a good distance north of here, there was a room over a fried chicken shop, where certain of her countrywomen gathered

But that didn’t affect my reading comprehension. I don’t want to say anything about the plot, except that it includes a rape (so do take care if this is an issue for you).

[Quote selected from: Metafilter, where there’s also some commentary about perceived ‘meanings’ in the story].

[UPDATE 12.09.2015. There was something about The School of English that made me uncomfortable and, after a few days, I realised what it was. Marcella is presented as a certain image of an immigrant (of undeclared ethnicity) with broken English and a victim. She is set up to be pitied by the reader, who is – I suppose – assumed to be wealthy and bookish. That’s a bit icky.

Imagine the London Review of Books being passed around by Marcella’s countrywomen who practice their English on this story. Would they relate to Marcella? Or would they feel their own story was one about – perhaps – bettering themselves or seeking a better life? Would they want Hilary Mantel to have written a different story, about their petty niggles and day-to-day annoyances? One where Marcella played heroine, securing a far better job and seeing the boy, Joshua, receiving karmic comeuppance at the end of the tale].