Laurie Steed’s new anthology of short stories, Greater City Shadows, unfolds with a compelling prologue barely a few hundred words long. In the second person, it offers a view of a simple, unrequited love tinged with nostalgia. This opening story shares its name with the collection itself, suggesting a thematic blueprint for the entire anthology. Steed has compiled an array of stories that capture the sweet and sour of human longing. It’s an enjoyable, sparse experience.
Steed’s primary focus is the vulnerabilities of his characters. We become immersed in their inner monologues, and any description of their outer world is brief but expressive. As in this description of a specific but ubiquitous regional store: ‘Inside IGA, it was Coco Pops, mac and cheese. It was fruit juice and CDs and, way up back, enough meat to bring a smile to the shire president.’
However, Steed’s central obsession with concepts of longing leaves little room for much else. Almost every story is an echo of the first. A husband tries to connect with his wife, a set of siblings to communicate with their parents, a mother with her daughter, and many emotionally stunted men struggle to confess their true desires.
Some of these blokes are tragic, as is Caleb in ‘The Crazy and the Brave’ (‘…but it had always been so hard for him to tell her she was his world and nothing hurt as much as when he let her down.’). Others are comic, such as the romantic protagonist in ‘Breathing Lessons’, awkward enough to be a character in a Wes Anderson film: ‘The realisation that you’ll never fit in. Or that you fitted with her, two pieces of a puzzle, and for minutes, sometimes hours, light shone through the glass ceiling of your circular building, and the minutes felt like lifetimes, and you were better for her presence, her thoughts and her feelings.’
As you may have guessed, Steed’s endings rarely shift darker than melancholia. The endings are primarily optimistic, usually sweet and sometimes nearly saccharine. The stories rarely outstay their welcome, but the collection lacks diversity in tone and theme. By the end of Greater City Shadows, the constant longing has lost the romance of a human heartbeat and has become more akin to a predictable percussive rhythm.
Steed’s sparse prose provides the quality of pencil sketches: fast, intimate and evocative. He enjoys playing with perspective, quickly covering first, second and third person across the anthology. He is a literary writer, but still accessible (although if you’re the type to stamp your foot about the occasional sentence fragment as poetic licence, you are now warned).
It’s no small feat to make readers invest in characters in such a short time, but Steed achieves it at every blow. His skill is undeniable, and the collection is a worthy achievement. Greater City Shadows is a hopeful, smart collection.
Greater City Shadows, Laurie Steed
Publication date: 1 February