In A Story with a Pattern, Mary Lavin’s protagonist is a writer, cornered by a man at a party who complains that her short stories are frustrating because they don’t have a beginning, a middle and an end. Lavin, could capture stillness like few other writers, beautifully illustrating the fustiness of Irish society in the 1940’s and 50’s and hinting at the subversions rippling beneath the surface. She did this successfully by eschewing the traditional short story form that we might see in a Maupassant or a Henry James, her stories often as brief and ephemeral as the tremble of a butterfly’s wing.
A Story with a Pattern highlights the challenge of the short story, a tricky format to master. The alchemy of a good short story is hard to pinpoint. Plot matters but so does characterisation, pacing and tone. The story must draw the reader in and keep them hooked as the story unfolds. Above all, with the short story, there must be precision and balance. This is perhaps why it both frustrates and exhilarates.
Despite its fractured identity, falling between a poem and a novella, the world would be a duller place without the short story. It is claimed that Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue gave birth to modern detective fiction, a genre embraced by later writers such as Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. The short story was also a key player in the development of gothic fiction with the vampires of Le Fanu’s Camilla and Polidori’s The Vampyre and the Victoriana horror stories of Gaskell, Dickens and M.R James, to name but a few.
What I love most about the short story, is its ability to convey the uncanny or Das Unheimliche as described by Freud. It is the perfect format to illustrate the strangeness or otherness that can be found in the ordinary. Mansfield and Bowen both used the uncanny to great effect in their explorations of the dangers lurking behind the tea parties and stiff domesticity of colonial life. The uncanny can also be found in many of Lavin’s works, whether describing the glint of a tea-cup or the swish of an attractive woman’s dress, the extra-ordinary hovers between her words.
By its inherent eclecticism, the short story has something for every reader, whether the anarchy of Beckett, the humour of O.Henry or the quiet fury of Chekhov. Often over-looked and sometimes denigrated, it deserves its due recognition as an important literary form.
Author: Anne Daly