Book review: The O. Henry Prize Stories 2019, ed. by Laura Furman

posted: June 30, 2020

tl;dr: A melancholy collection, befitting the times...

Laura Furman states in her introduction to The O. Henry Prize Stories 2019 that this volume is her last as series editor, which spanned sixteen volumes starting with the 2003 edition. I still can’t fathom the amount of short story reading required to winnow down all the hundreds, if not thousands, of short stories submitted every year to select the twenty that make it into that year’s anthology. Laura Furman gives credit to other readers who assist her, but I still imagine her reading short stories at every available moment of every day. It can be a grind, I imagine.

I started reading this series in 1996, so I’ve read every volume that Laura Furman edited. When she first started, I felt that her selection tended towards darker, more pessimistic and sometimes even apocalyptic stories. Over the years her selections have lightened somewhat, but she still has an affinity for the downtrodden and downbeat. She does unearth some gems, and her quality level is higher and more consistent than the other short story anthology series I read, The Best American Short Stories.

The overall mood of the 2019 volume is one of melancholy. Obviously Furman’s selections were made well before the COVID-19 pandemic, so perhaps this is a reflection of my mood while reading the stories in the midst of the pandemic. If, however, I am able to judge accurately, then perhaps it is a reflection of Furman’s own mood as she edited her final volume. Or perhaps it reflects the mood of the country as a whole, especially the authors who painstakingly craft short stories to be enjoyed by the small segment of the population that consumes this art form.

I wish Furman the best as she moves onto other things. The overall quality level of the stories in her final volume is higher than usual, with just one or two duds in my opinion. As always, your opinion will differ. Here are my favorite stories:

“Girl of Few Seasons” by Rachel Kondo: This incredibly touching story is one of the best I’ve read in years. Juror Elizabeth Stout thought it “magnificent”, but the two other jurors selected other stories as their favorites, again proving how beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The story is about how the lives of two simple people change after a terrible accident, i.e. one of those brief moments in time in which something irreversible happens. Kondo’s writing is incredibly poignant and heartfelt, and it is hard not to cry at the ending.

“Funny Little Snake” by Tessa Hadley: a queer story about quirky people and how someone who represents normality ultimately decides what to do about the strange family situation she uncovers.

“Flowers for America” by Doua Thao: long enough to be a novella, this story explores the lives of Asian refugees living a hard-scrabble existence in the slums, various encounters they have with much richer Americans, and the resulting pain and pleasures.

“No Spanish” by Moira McCavana: a story about the difficulties experienced by a family whose father decides that they must adopt a different culture and language, when all the kids want, unsurprisingly, is to fit in with everyone else.

As usual I can recommend this year’s volume of The O. Henry Prize Stories. Just be prepared for feelings of melancholy as you read it.