Culture Editor Ilina Jha reviews Parables, Fables, Nightmares by Malachi McIntosh, finding it to be a well-written collection of interesting and emotional short stories.

Written by Ilina Jha
Last updated
Images by The Emma Press

Content warning: the book and this review contain references to racism, the murder of George Floyd, violence, and suicide.


From local publishing house The Emma Press comes a debut short story collection from Malachi McIntosh, Associate Professor of World Literature at the University of Oxford, as well as fiction and non-fiction writer. Parables, Fables, Nightmares provides stories about the trials, tribulations, and serious troubles of everyday life, whether that’s parenthood, love, or systemic racism. 

Before the main collection begins, there is a two-page story that sets up the collection as a whole. What is important in this short snippet is not the plot, but what it suggests about storytelling as a whole. We are told that someone caught up in an event ‘develops a special way’ of telling the story of that event, but that this supposedly factual ‘story’ contains an element of fiction: this character will ‘say she saw [an event] when she didn’t see [it].’ So, this two-page account seems to suggest that storytelling is something that we all do, every day, as we recount the events in our lives (sometimes with a fictional slant). This perfectly sets up McIntosh’s collection of short stories about everyday life – we are left to wonder what is and is not real about these stories.

We are left to wonder what is and is not real about these stories

The quality of McIntosh’s writing is excellent. His prose style is clear and straightforward rather than flowery or highly embellished, perhaps representing the everyday subjects of his stories. He incorporates text messages and protest slogans into his writing, emphasising the contemporaneity of his subject matter, which is wide ranging: a single mother worrying over her son’s behaviour and performance at school; a mysterious work colleague intent on hiding his sister’s existence; and the various difficulties posing a couple ahead of their wedding day.

McIntosh’s stories always leave you with the feeling that something has eluded you, that there is something you don’t understand, but this is the point of them. Much like Katherine Mansfield’s short stories, they are meant to feel somewhat confusing at the end; they are meant to make you think and ponder what has really happened, or what the story really means. This is a slightly uncomfortable experience on first encounter if you are used to stories that tie up all the loose ends at the conclusion, but it is an equally valid and interesting mode of storytelling.

McIntosh’s stories always leave you with the feeling that something has eluded you, that there is something you don’t understand, but this is the point of them

Perhaps the most emotional story in Parables, Fables, Nightmares is the closing one, ‘roads.’ In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, a man worries about the BLM protesters getting sick, whether one of the workers at his son’s nursery is racist, and his abilities as a father. In one particularly poignant moment, he ruminates about the conversation he will one day have with his son about their race, a conversation that will feature questions (such as ‘Are we-?’ or ‘Because we’re…does that mean we…’) that he does not know how he will answer.

The gaps in the son’s enquiries are easily filled in by the reader, and the father’s constant anticipation highlights this as a key moment that awaits almost all non-white parents of non-white children – an added struggle of parenthood not experienced by their White British counterparts. This and other reflections on fatherhood in ‘roads’ make for a deeply emotional story, and it is my personal favourite of the collection. 

Overall, McIntosh has created a fantastic debut collection of short stories. Covering the  fascinating and weird subjects of our everyday lives in high-quality writing, Parables, Fables, Nightmares is a thought-provoking and emotional read.

Parables, Fables, Nightmares will be published by The Emma Press on 14th September 2023.

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