The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories anthologies are, by definition, the best of the best. Each year magazines published in the United States and Canada are submitted in their entirety, and from the thousands of short stories in them, the PEN / O. Henry editor chooses twenty for inclusion in this collection. It doesn’t get any more exclusive than that, and the 2010 stories are perhaps the most structurally outstanding to date.
There is more to a successful work of fiction than structure, of course. To connect with readers, a story must show depth of character, a compelling tale, and that something extra that cannot be defined but that is essential to the power and memorable nature of the work. Every reader will find these in different stories, making it impossible for an author to manipulate or entice every single reader of a piece.
Reviewers, too, have peculiarities and preferences. Consider that a disclaimer; while I recognize the skill of all authors represented in the 2010 edition of The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, a few met every one of my personal requirements for literary satisfaction.
In Kirstin Allio’s perfectly structured “Clothed, Female Figure,” she presents a tale of a Russian nanny’s deliberately distant relationship with her charges. As we read from one character’s letter that “…things used to be so original. Now, everything, absolutely everything, is a repeat,” the author disproves the point with this very story, in which a spare but unusual narrative is juxtaposed with the passion of a young woman’s letters that unwittingly draw out the nanny’s deeply-contained and stunning secret.
“The Headstrong Historian,” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s mesmerizing offering, eloquently follows three generations of an African farm family. The author pulls out seemingly ordinary events from seemingly ordinary lives that lead, ultimately, to a single defining moment that closes the circle on family legacy. In the process, Adichie shows us the strength of tradition and its hold on our psyches.
In “Sheep May Safely Graze,” Jess Row writes the pivotal moment in which a grieving father contemplates murder because he is “afflicted with compassion.” The artistry here is such that readers accept the accumulation of pain and can both object to and condone the character’s every action.
Wendell Berry’s clean, evocative sentences paint a family vignette in “Stand By Me.” Berry, of course, can be counted on to show us that there is strength in our connection to the land, yet his characters and backgrounds remain fresh and eye-opening. In this story where we are immersed in an agrarian world, we read of crops and tragedies that grow inevitably, season after season, and of the steady people who do what must be done as they remind the reader that life and nature have common cycles.
The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories of 2010 is a collection that serves up a broad variety of cultures and characters. The stories share a common theme, however, and it is critical to any successful story – characters, true and viable, overwhelmed by a myriad of tiny burdens yet enduring. It is always the broken characters who grace us with insight, and this collection fairly glows with the substance of life.