Marching Songs by Keith Ridgway (2012)

tony B

Another very fashionable author amongst the short story / literary fiction fraternity, with his novel ‘Hawthorne & Child’ exceptionally well received, from which this story is taken. Whilst very clever in places, and engaging in patches, this story raises the very important question: what are short stories are for? If the answer is, as it may well be, nothing, then all well and good; however, if the answer is anything more than that, then this story can be found severely wanting: telling us almost nothing about what it means to be human, riffing on what it might mean, in a childish imagining of the matter, to be a paranoid schizophrenic, or some such person with some such problems. Using characters with mental disabilities can easily seem somehow exploitative, as it would do here, if anything was achieved. But nothing is. However, it is genuinely very clever in places. It can be funny too. And the writer is very good at putting one word after another: not something that should be dismissed.
Utility 0/10  
Plausibility 4/10  
Credibility 4/10  
Depth 4/10  
Subtlety 5/10  
Engagement 6/10  
Cogency / Structure / Coherence 5/10  
Affective / Empathy / Evocative 4/10  
Novelty / Surprise / Fun 5/10  
Defamiliarisation 5/10  
Total/100 42/100  



Mixed Breeding by Nicola Barker (1996)

Nicola Barker

We have found rock bottom!

What is fiction for? Is it enough if its clever in places? The odd bounce of humour? If the story achieves nothing, not even being offensive (which this story seems to be setting out to do – or at least be controversial), then one wonders why it was written, why published by The Observer, and then included in a collection of 100 of “the finest short stories ever written”. I would love to see some justification for any positive opinion of this story. Barker’s much feted novel ‘Darkmans’ was, admittedly beyond me too – though not Patrick Ness in The Guardian: “Darkmans is just the sort of bravura performance that will probably inspire vitriol in a certain breed of reviewer as too ostentatious, too brazen. Pity them, reader, for being unable to embrace such a loud shout of glorious, untidy, angry, joyous life. Barker is a great, restless novelist, and Darkmans is a great, restless novel.” Is this story brazen? Yes. But in the manner of a child defecating in the living room.


Utility 0/10  
Plausibility 3/10  
Credibility 3/10  
Depth 2/10  
Subtlety 2/10  
Engagement 4/10  
Cogency / Structure / Coherence 4/10  
Affective / Empathy / Evocative 2/10  
Novelty / Surprise / Fun 3/10  
Defamiliarisation 3/10  
Total/100 26/100  

Beauty’s Sister by James Bradley (2012)


This is awful. An almost pointless piece of prose; packed with clichés, clunky, derivative, with errors of point of view and confusions in the narrative, that can only irritate a reader who tries to give this story her full attention. I couldn’t finish this story and can’t see how it is anything other than a waste of time. Merits? Few, if any.
Utility 0/10  
Plausibility 3/10  
Credibility 3/10  
Depth 3/10  
Subtlety 3/10  
Engagement 3/10  
Cogency / Structure / Coherence 3/10  
Affective / Empathy / Evocative 3/10  
Novelty / Surprise / Fun 3/10  
Defamiliarisation 3/10  
Total/100 27/100  

Nothing Visible by Siddhartha Deb (2002)

Nothing Visible by Siddhartha Deb

I didn’t want to finish this one; it seemed to be going nowhere, and after a couple of thousand words it arrived there: nowhere. Did it leave the reader with a shadow, a sense, a kind of disquiet, a question, an anything? No. It’s kind of clunky and awkward in places, rife with clichés and heavy touches, as well as a few unwieldly figurative flourishes: they just annoy the reader rather than enhance the prose. The mystery surrounding an accountant’s visit to a coal mine never amounts to more than a vague half-assed care on the part of the reader.
Utility 2/10  
Plausibility 5/10  
Credibility 5/10  
Depth 5/10  
Subtlety 5/10  
Engagement 4/10  
Cogency / Structure / Coherence 5/10  
Affective / Empathy / Evocative 4/10  
Novelty / Surprise / Fun 2/10  
Defamiliarisation 2/10  
Total/100 39/100  

The Deep by Anthony Doerr (2011)

old salt mine

Begins so sharp, but this one loses its way, gets flabby, sentimental, one or two shining moments, and then one of those neat, a little too carefully and obviously wrought, sentimental endings, one that make the reader regret reading the story: why bother when all you’re going to do is prick the feelings we already have? Poor title too: heavy touch.
Utility 3/10  
Plausibility 5/10  
Credibility 5/10  
Depth 5/10  
Subtlety 5/10  
Engagement 5/10  
Cogency / Structure / Coherence 5/10  
Affective / Empathy / Evocative 5/10  
Novelty / Surprise / Fun 5/10  
Defamiliarisation 3/10  
Total/100 46/100  

The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2009)

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.jpg

This one built up and up, starting off as just another go at telling the same story in the same pedestrian way, but it eventually manages to plumb depths, roping in the reading, dragging the reader down and up, pulling the reader along with a deftness and skill that’s remarkable.
Utility 8/10  
Plausibility 8/10  
Credibility 8/10  
Depth 9/10  
Subtlety 8/10  
Engagement 7/10  
Cogency / Structure / Coherence 8/10  
Affective / Empathy / Evocative 9/10  
Novelty / Surprise / Fun 7/10  
Defamiliarisation 8/10  
Total/100 80/100  



Master and Man by Leo Tolstoy (1895)

Master and Man“Winter cold is integral to this sophisticated parable on a concrete and spiritual level. It is an evocative tour de force: snow and biting winds gust from its pages. Its climactic event, the transferral of heat from one body to another, has a primal resonance.

“Vasily Andreich Brekhunov is a rich merchant focused solely on becoming richer. On a dark afternoon the day after the feast of St Nicholas, despite the threat of a storm, he sets out to secure the purchase of a wood at a bargain price. He takes his “kind, pleasant” servant Nikita with him, a man Brekhunov values but callously exploits. He pays him half what he should, and then “mostly not in money but in high-priced goods from [his] shop.”

“Master and Man” is a story about the passage from life to death, one of Tolstoy’s abiding concerns from “Three Deaths” (1859) onwards. It is strewn with symbols. Wasting no time in developing the tension that throbs away throughout the story, immediately as Brekhunov and Nikita leave the village of Kresty (“The Crosses”) Tolstoy sets about dismantling the barrier between this world and the next:

As soon as they passed the last [building], they noticed at once that the wind was much stronger than they had thought. The road could hardly be seen…The fields were all in a whirl, and the limit where sky and earth met could not be seen.

“Nikita drowses and they become lost, riding across bleak fields “with clumps of wormwood and straw sticking up from under the snow.” They come to the village of Grishkino, receive directions and set off again. The snowstorm has intensified. Again Nikita drowses, again they get lost in “the slanting net of wind-driven snow”. Night is falling. They travel in a circle. They come again to Grishkino.

“This time they seek shelter at a wealthy household in the village. The contrast Tolstoy creates between the cold loneliness of the wilderness and the cosy warmth of human habitation is highly effective. Nikita, icicles melting from his beard, drinks “glass after glass” of tea and feels “warmer and warmer, pleasanter and pleasanter”. But Brekhunov, considerably better dressed for the weather than his servant, insists they resume their journey.

“They get lost a third time, in darkness this time, and the horse Mukhorty is too tired to carry on. Nikita prepares for a night outdoors, with Brekhunov in the sleigh and himself in a straw-lined hollow. Brekhunov smokes (“always a bad sign in Tolstoy”, as Hugh McLean points out) and thinks about “the sole aim, meaning, joy, and pride of his life – of how much money he had made and might still make”. But these thoughts peter out into the “whistling of the wind, the fluttering and snapping of the kerchief in the shafts, and the lashing of the falling snow against the bast of the sleigh.”

“Over five masterful pages Tolstoy tracks Brekhunov’s shift from discomfort and irritation to panic. He decides to take Mukhorty and abandon Nikita – “‘it’s all the same if he dies. What kind of life has he got!'” – who is losing his toes to frostbite, and realises he is probably going to die. “This thought did not seem especially unpleasant to him, because his whole life was not a continuous feast, but, on the contrary, a ceaseless servitude, which was beginning to weary him.”

“On a floundering Mukhorty, Brekhunov travels in smaller circles across a hostile, almost alien landscape, coming twice to a clump of wormwood – “growing on a boundary … desperately tossing about under the pressure of the wind” – that appears to mark the grim border of existence. He “sees he is perishing in the middle of this dreadful snowy waste” and realises he has returned to the sleigh. Then, wonderfully, he busies himself by scraping the snow from Nikita and lying on top of him. In the morning Nikita is alive and Brekhunov is dead, frozen as if crucified, “his open mouth…packed with snow.”

“There is something thrilling, regardless of creed, about Brekhunov’s unlikely transformation from exploiter to saviour, which Tolstoy uses a kind of stream of consciousness to outline but not precisely describe. Brekhunov’s thought that “‘Nikita’s alive, which means I’m alive, too,'” could be Buddhist, or humanist, although the deep vein of symbolism running through the story is unmistakably Christian. As Elizabeth Trahan pointed out in a 1963 essay, the number three features 15 times in the story; the gatekeeper of the house in Grishkino is called Petrukha (Peter); on the road they pass a Semka (Simon); there are 13 people seated around the table at what turns out to be Brekhunov’s last supper. There are several more examples, but the most insistently repeated symbol is that of the circle. As Trahan notes, it is “menace and trap, futility and despair, but it also represents the unity of life and death, the Chain of Being. The snow whirls around master and man, the wind circles around them, their road turns into circles.”

“Master and Man” is a painstakingly crafted parable that stays vital despite its heavy symbolism, and whose characters do more than merely represent virtue and avarice. Nikita is kind and pleasant, but he’s also a drunk who chopped up his wife’s most treasured clothes. Brekhunov is odious but sees himself as a “benefactor”. They are trapped in a hostile limbo between this world and the next, and they are 200 metres off the road in a snowstorm. Binding all this together, and making it a masterpiece, is complex prose that has the apparent simplicity of bare trees in a field of snow.”

Agreed. This is great literature. And a truly great short story. Like “Strider” or “Two Hussars” or “A Prisoner in the Caucus”, this is a sotry that works: it engages the reader at every level: emotionally, intellectually and morally. It is profoundly evocative and emotive. This is a writer who knows his reader, respected his reader, but doesn’t merely give his reader what she wants: Tolstoy gives the reader what she doesn’t know she wants.


Master and Man by Leo Tolstoy (1895)


Utility 10/10  
Plausibility 10/10  
Credibility 10/10  
Depth 10/10  
Subtlety 10/10  
Engagement 10/10  
Cogency / Structure / Coherence 10/10  
Affective / Empathy / Evocative 10/10  
Novelty / Surprise / Fun 9/10  
Defamiliarisation 9/10  
Total/100 98/100