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Short Story Review: Departure by Alistair Morgan

Today, I read Departure by Alistair Morgan, a poignant story that appeared in Paris Review last summer and surprise! is available to read online.

The story, set in South Africa, is about a couple, Anna and Miles who are checking out the venue for their upcoming wedding. From the start, it is obvious that they are not madly in love with each other, as you would expect a newly engaged couple to be. We soon know why, with some back-story into their life in England. The “story” starts with a drunk man literally running into their car. Anna insists on getting him to a hospital, even though Miles would rather leave him to the care of the companions. At the hospital, they meet the young doctor, Miranda who invites them to her house. The rest of the story revolves around the events in her house, and subsequently a visit to the hospital to check on the drunk man.

I am not quite sure why I like this story – yes, admittedly, I often have that problem with short stories. But it kept me reading, from beginning to end. If you ask me questions like, “What did the protagonist want?”, “did she get it in the end?”, “what was the conflict?” – I would probably just say I am not sure.

But the suspense remains throughout the narrative. And the language is beautiful. I am a sucker for good descriptions, and there are quite a few of them peppered through the narrative.

“He reached over the gearstick and squeezed Anna’s thigh through her skirt. He held his hand there for some time, steady and firm, like a sailor keeping his hand on the tiller in rough weather. ”

“Although Miles could recall some of the song’s lyrics, he couldn’t remember who the singer was. It was like meeting a forgotten acquaintance whose face he recognized but whose name had slipped loose from his memory’s grip.”

““Miranda, I want it off. Just take it off!” Anna was writhing inside the dress like an animal trying to shed its skin. “

Now, Alistair Morgan is definitely not known for writing the most PG of stuff, and you would not read this story expecting it. But even then, there was a certain passage which made me think that when my daughter grows up and starts reading, I wouldn’t want to leave this issue lying around. Bordering on the perverse, but definitely within the limits of artistic, there is a beautiful depiction of Miles imagining a sexual episode with the young doctor while she and his fiancée are having a conversation.

Living in a small town, Miranda was telling Anna, was a major adjustment after the city, but she was enjoying the work in the hospital, especially as she was one of only two doctors in the town. It must be difficult at times, said Anna, as Miles moved behind Miranda and gently pushed her facedown onto the table with one hand, while slapping her buttocks with the other.

Why else should you read it? A non-formulaic tale that keeps you entertained. And if you are the kind who reads award-winning stories, this one won the 2009 Plimpton Prize for, as the Observer puts it, “uncommon dedication to plot: “stories that are actually stories, full of event and surprise.”

Posted in Short Story Month on December 4, 2009

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