I've often wondered why Muriel Spark never wrote a novel about Africa. She lived there for many years, first with her husband Solly, and then by herself when the marriage went sour, but her books never wander far from the London neighborhoods she settled in when she returned. Having read this collection of all of Spark's short stories, I think it's possible that Spark felt that she said in them all that she had to say about Africa.
Her first story, "The Seraph and the Zambesi," was written for a contest. In her autobiography she tells the charming story about how, dead broke, she had to borrow writing paper from an art shop, promising she would buy something if she won the contest. She won, and she made good on her promise. The story that resulted is admirably bizarre for a first stab at fiction. In it, a group of English colonists try to put on a Christmas play, only to be foiled by the appearance of an objecting angel. Other stories speak more directly to Spark's African experience: "The Curtain Blown by the Breeze" repurposes a story Spark heard from a fellow colonist who bragged about shooting a young African boy caught peeping at his wife during breastfeeding. The best story in the book, and the longest, is "The Go-Away Bird," about a South African girl who hears in the bird's namesake call an exhortation to leave the Colony, and bounces back and forth between England and Africa.
Elsewhere, Spark seems to have used short fiction to indulge some of her wilder ideas. There are loads of ghosts--one of the best in the collection, "The Portobello Road," is actually written from the perspective of a ghost who haunts her murderer with Spark's characteristic disaffection and glibness. Sometimes Spark seems to be indulging half-baked notions for their own sake, as with "Miss Pinkerton's Apocalypse," a story about a couple who see an alien in a flying saucer, but which is actually a saucer, like for tea. But sometimes these wild ideas pay off, as with one of my favorites, "The First Year of My Life," told from the perspective of an infant born during World War I:
Let me therefore get my word in first, because I feel pretty sure, now, about the authenticity of my remembrance of things past. My autobiography, as I very well perceived at the time, started in the very worst year the world had ever seen so far. Apart from being born bedridden and toothless, unable to raise my myself on the pillow or utter anything but farmyard squawks or police-siren wails, my bladder and my bowels totally out of control, I was further depressed but the curious behavior of the two-legged mammals around me. There were those black-dressed people, females of the species to which I appeared to belong, saying they had lost their sons. It was like the special pin for my nappies which my mother or some other hoverer dedicated to my care was always losing. These careless women in black lost their husbands and brothers. Then they came to visit my mother and clucked and crowed over my cradle. I was not amused.
All in all, Spark's style, which leans toward the brief and brusque, is perfectly situated to the short story, and many of these stand up to her best novels. Some are misfires, but most are canny observations about human nature whose plain style balance their tendency toward the supernatural and the macabre. It's hard to imagine what might never have been written if she hadn't won that first contest.