Inspired by Boccaccio’s “The Decameron,” the editors of The New York Times Magazine assembled a conclave of twenty-nine authors for “The Decameron Project” — an anthology of short stories memorialising the COVID-19 pandemic.

But however ripe our present is for depressive, maudlin and despotic fiction, “The Decameron Project” features stories that explore the entire emotional spectrum, and sometimes touch on the virus abstrusely; the pandemic merely the spark for an idea on which these writers expand upon in tales kept to fewer than 10 pages, some grounded in reality, others dipping into the supernatural. It’s a stylistically eclectic collection, but the quality of the fiction is universally high, and their brevity means even those that don’t quite connect are worth persisting with.

My favourites include Victor LaValle’s “Recognition,” which stars a Black woman in a rapidly emptying apartment building, who connects with one of her neighbours; “Outside” by Etgar Keret hauntingly explores the first steps outside the confines of one’s home after 120 days of isolation; Dinaw Mengestu’s “How We Used to Play” examines the relationship between a nameless protagonist and their taxi driver uncle; Karen Russell’s “Line 19 Woodstock / Glisan” is centred around the driver of a bus and her passengers frozen in a moment in time; “The Perfect Travel Buddy” delves into the complicated relationship between a man, his wife, and his step-son during lockdown; and “Barcelona: Open” by John Wray spotlights Xaxi, who realises he can monetize strangers walking his dogs: a loophole in lockdown rules means people are allowed outside their homes to exercise their canine companions.

More than a mere snapshot of 2020, “The Decameron Project” is a wonderfully tantalising taster of fiction by authors I’ve never sampled, but who I’m determined to read more of.

Publisher: Scribner UK
Publication date: November 18, 2020
Length: 320 pages
ISBN13: 9781398502147

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