Shena Mackay’s The Atmospheric Railway features 13 new short stories and 23 more from her previous collections. It is an uncharacteristically large edition. The new tales would have worked wonderfully well as a discreet edition, in a slim volume of just over 100 pages.
There is a tendency towards publishers putting out short stories in large collections, which is a bit of a shame. Small selections of short stories can be a real delight, carefully put together, leaving the reader wanting more, rather than feeling that they have eaten too much or run a marathon.
A beautifully put-together set of short stories is rather like a thoughtfully-constructed LP where the length, the variety, and running order are just right. And inevitably some stories or tracks will appeal more than others, which is part of the fun.
It might be expected that short stories would be a format which would thrive in the Internet age where attention spans are said to be brief, but among those attached to books there seems to be more of an appetite for girth.
Shena Mackay works most effectively in a concise format. Her prose is so rich that there is no need to present us with large courses. Allan Massie has written that “Mackay can take a little incident and make a world of it”. Of her books, only her novel Dunedin is of a very substantial length, and her other stories are slender affairs which nevertheless cover a lot of ground.
She has, to date, published something like nine novels, two novellas, and a handful of short story collections. There has been also at least one play, Nurse Macateer, which was put on at the Jeanetta Cochrane Theatre in Holborn, in February 1969, before transferring to the National Theatre. It was part of an experimental season of drama called An Evasion of Women, where Joan Plowright asked a quartet of female novelists each to write a play.
The most striking features about Shena Mackay’s writing are her conciseness, her cleverness, and her wit. The short story or the slim novel formats are therefore ideally suited to her. In an interview as part of the University of Southampton’s ‘Writers in Conversation’ series, in February 2016, Shena spoke about writing short stories and how the “particular becomes universal”.
In the many glowing reviews Shena’s work has received it is often remarked upon how she creates poetry from the everyday and impales her victims with her incisiveness (‘skewers’ is the word critics default to, understandably). The writer John Murray has said that “few can match Shena Mackav when it comes to mordant comic observation.” And he should know.
The impression received is that Shena writes carefully, slowly, deliberately, getting specific sentences tuned just right. Many, many years ago an assistant in the Richard Shops concession in Chiesmans, the big department store in Lewisham, when asked whether a particular leather coat was a good one, nodded approvingly, and said: “Note the detail, dear”. Chiesmans actually turns up in Shena’s early novella Toddler on the Run where Deirdre McGovern, the erotic, erratic centre forward on the St Alfege’s hockey team, buys slacks and a suede jacket there, which is a great example of Shena’s own eye for detail.
She clearly delights in words, and is a genius when it comes to descriptive passages, puns, jokes and withering put-downs. There was a time when collections like Kenneth Williams’ Acid Drops were best sellers, books with plenty of Dorothy Parker and Groucho Marx quotes in, and volumes of the wit and wisdom of Oscar Wilde or Winston Churchill were in circulation. A similar assorted selection of Shena’s words, stripped of context, would work a treat.
It is all about individual taste, of course, but there are many passages within Shena’s work that make one sigh in admiration, stand up and applaud, or want to repeat with relish specific sentences. She is an uncannily accurate observer, a recording angel, often avenging angel, but more than that she makes people and situations come alive where someone less gifted would miss the magic, the cruelty, the strangeness, the poetry.