(CLASSIC: from Selected Stories, Heinemann).
A miner’s wife waits for her husband to return from the pit. He’s late. Is he in the pub, or has something else happened? That’s the simple starting point. But – and this is a characteristic of Lawrence’s stories – the impact is achieved by the author’s careful management of delicate sub-strands, which run beneath the surface like underground streams, before bubbling up at the end. The story turns on two revelations: firstly, we learn what has happened to the absent husband. Many writers would let the story play itself out from this moment on. But for Lawrence this event, in of itself, is not the point of the story, and in fact he uses it to facilitate a second, greater revelation: the wife’s reaction. Here Lawrence manages to rent open a dimension of human behaviour that would seem beyond the reach of other writers – something the reader feels to be shockingly and universally true – as the miner’s wife marshals both her emotional and practical responses to the news. It’s utterly unflinching, a breathtaking display of Lawrence’s powers of empathy – what these days would be called emotional intelligence – and shows why he’s considered among the best modernist short story writers, along with Mansfield and Joyce, and Chekhov before them.
(MODERN: from Back in the World, Vintage)
A rather odd and ostensibly misshapen story following an evening in the life of a teenage girl, as she steals from the cinema where she works, makes a cruel prank phone call, then retrieves a bicycle from the bottom of a swimming pool. It’s approximately arranged in two halves, and at first they appear to have little to say about each other (structurally, it’s a bit like Katherine Mansfield’s ‘The Fly’ in this respect). But the seemingly chance arrangement of material belies a careful craft; each disparate event is invested with great weight and mystery, and you couldn’t take anything away without compromising the story’s structural integrity. Above all, it’s a story that makes me feel incredibly sad. She’s waiting for real life to begin – experimenting with ways she might be an adult, as the title suggests – and if the reader extrapolates from these actions (as good short stories invite you to do), you worry about how she will fare in the world after the story has ended.
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