The 90th-anniversary edition of the annual prize awarded in recognition of short stories published in the United States and Canada.
Time was, and not so long ago, that the story writers had to be American or Canadian, but the prize has since opened to those writing in English elsewhere. The present collection is broadly multicultural, with a particularly strong showing by Asian and Asian American writers such as Ha Jin, who turns in a smart, fugitive piece about the sex trade; Mohan Sikka, who traverses from light family comedy to bittersweet drama; and Paul Yoon and Viet Dinh, who write, respectively, about the wars in Korea and Vietnam. Indeed, perhaps as a marker of the zeitgeist, many of the pieces touch on war. The strongest of them, selected by two of the three volume judges, Tim O’Brien and A.S. Byatt, opens the book; written by the British novelist Graham Joyce, “An Ordinary Soldier of the Queen” is an attention-getting but never showy blend of rigorous military realism with fantasy—but fantasy of the darkest sort. Says the narrator of that story, who has been to the Falklands, Bosnia and now the Persian Gulf: “War is normal. That’s why it’s a paid job…You don’t argue with the Queen. You form up. Move out. Press on.” So it is, and with memorable results. None of the other pieces in the book quite matches the power of “Ordinary Soldier,” which Byatt likens to the work of Rudyard Kipling. There is a pleasing mix of familiar and emerging voices, with particularly strong showings by the stately Nadine Gordimer and Junot Díaz and, among the latter group of writers, a sensitive piece by Manuel Muñoz on belonging and longing.
A solid collection of interest to general readers but especially to aspiring short-story writers, thanks to the judges’ end-of-book notes on their choices.