The Atmospheric Railway: New and Selected Stories

Shena Mackay

The Atmospheric Railway: New and Selected Stories

Thirteen new stories, plus a selection of twenty-three more from the Scottish writer's previous collections. 4.4 out of 5 based on 11 reviews
The Atmospheric Railway: New and Selected Stories


Classification Fiction
Genre Short Stories
Format Hardback
Pages 432
RRP £17.99
Date of Publication November 2008
ISBN 978-0224072984
Publisher Jonathan Cape

Thirteen new stories, plus a selection of twenty-three more from the Scottish writer's previous collections.


Scotland on Sunday

Vanessa Curtis

Her most awe-inspiring skill is that of beginning each story with a plethora of mesmerising hooks and original lines. Who could fail to want to read on after a story starts with "The Blair Atholl Hotel was berthed like a great decaying liner on the coast at Eastbourne"?... Although some of her stories employ magic realism, most feature everyday events that many of us experience at some point in our lives. Mackay's skill is to bring these on to the page with a fresh perspective. With this polished collection, she proves to anybody who might still view the short story as somehow inferior to the novel that the opposite is true – it is an art form at which few authors manage to excel to this level.


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The Daily Telegraph

Jane Shilling

Her style has a lyric elegance that has deceived critics into describing her, with that most dismissive term of faint praise, as 'gentle'. But she is not gentle. She writes with a beautiful, controlled savagery of (to borrow one of her own phrases) 'the familiar tenderised and made strange by the darkness'. There are other writers with this gift - Helen Simpson, Hilary Mantel, Jane Gardam come to mind. Mackay resembles them both in the beauty of her prose and in the absolute originality of her voice.


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The Times

Natalie Sandison

Mackay's mode is tragic-comic, painfully funny in places, wistful in others; we are thrown around by plots that clunk and scold; she is brusque with probability - people get killed off, they move away, things happen - plot is machinery, life is brutal, but there is consolation to be found in spades. A brilliant new collection, a rare treat.


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The Sunday Times

Lindsey Duguid

Snatches of verse and well-observed literary foibles decorate the narratives. Several of the new additions (an inventive slant on Treasure Island and the tale of a longvanished illusionist in an embroidered bolero and silk pantaloons) suggest that there is another realm to be explored outside the round of pets and neighbours. In her rebellion against the bleak predictability of the short story, Mackay's technical skill is diamond hard and her wit and imagination ever fertile; her inventive derailments of plot make the journey worthwhile


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The Financial Times

Melissa McClements

Mackay’s endings often explode into mystifying fragments in the final paragraph, as events take an unexpected, volatile, last-minute turn. But narrative is not where her real brilliance lies. It’s in the detail of her poetic, strikingly imaginative prose. Like the cluttered rooms full of bric-a-brac inhabited by her characters, her sentences are anything but minimalist. Few writers capture mood quite so beautifully.


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The Independent on Sunday

Paul Binding

Superb... At times the minutiae she spots fascinate her to the exclusion of the wider view. If someone can say "Enjoy!", "Go for it!" or "worst-case scenario", he or she will – and proceed to deliver more of the same. Our delight in Mackay's work is inextricable from precisely this fascination. Nonetheless, her best work is that done with the well-focused lens. "Windfalls", "Swansong", "Angelo" and this volume's final story, "Barbarians", are rich in detail but provide marvellous overviews of individual lives.


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The New Statesman

Alyssa McDonald

Mackay's deft ability to pinpoint emotions - particularly the more poignant ones - is one of the defining features of this collection... There are many writers who can elicit much feeling from a rollicking plot, but very few can manipulate the dreaminess of memory and fantasy with such exacting precision, or make the minutiae of other people's lives so sympathetic.


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The Scotsman

Tom Adair

When writing her novels and her novellas Mackay is an architect. In the stories she is a sorceress, leery eyed, luring you in with a beckoning fingernail dipped in brimstone. Incandescent, wrapped in blue touch-paper, soaked in petroleum, the stories are gloriously volatile, sometimes uplifting. Now and again the oomph escapes, they flop, they deflate, they fail to ignite... The test is simple: do you care – about the characters, or what happens? Would they make you postpone your night out, or send for a takeaway just to stay riveted to the page? Mackay at her finest can pull this trick, can make you gobble a book of stories as if they were sweets.


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The Spectator

Cressida Connolly

About a quarter of The Atmospheric Railway consists of 13 new short stories. These reveal Mackay’s gifts to be at their peak. One, called ‘Windfalls’, contains in its ten pages as much heartache, comic absurdity and observational genius as a full-length film by Mike Leigh... A couple of cavils. I didn’t like the surrealist whimsy with which some of the new stories are concluded. When you are as good at depicting real life as this writer, fantasy is extraneous. And it seems perverse of the publisher to commence with the new material but then, without any textual break, segue into her oldest stories, so that the more recent appear towards the book’s end... Nevertheless, The Atmospheric Railway deserves a fanfare.


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The Independent

Aamer Hussein

Though several of the 13 new stories (added to 23 others) here are very brief, Mackay brings all the irreverence and lyricism of her longer fictions to them. Brevity of this sort can demand a compression akin to poetry. It's perhaps most obvious in "Wasp's Nest": a daughter's foray into her father's insect-infested house turns into an understated reflection on death and survival. Often savage and even cruel, like the best fairy tales, these stories can also be rueful and tender.


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The Guardian

Jenny Turner

Of the new work, the best pieces share the title story's interest in active retirement. "Radio Gannet" features Dolly, "truly happy, having found her niche at last in public service broadcasting. Her Send a Pet to Lourdes campaign was coming along nicely and the coffers were swelling with milk-bottle tops and Green Shield stamps ..." In "The Lower Loxley Effect", an Archers fan has constructed life size cardboard models of his family, which he props up around his sitting room: "His son Richard's head was wobbling; he would have to reinforce his neck with parcel tape." The collection also includes shorter, scrappier stories that experiment with period and folk tales: pirates and holly and a wronged nanny who turns into a vengeful goat. These are fabulous in patches — "At 90 years old Father was fit as a flea, and I didn't want him stung to death by wasps" — but do not quite add up.


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