Review: A Day in Six Bets by Jonathan Chamberlain

A Day in Six Bets is an expressly short story. Instead of using up reams of text, the author has made use of repetition to draw the reader’s attention to the intertextuality between this story and the epic poems of The Iliad and The Odyssey. From this connection, we can make a lot of contextual inferences about Chamberlain’s characters. 

Given that both of these epics were spoken word poems waaaaay before they were written down, it’s unsurprising that techniques like rhythm and repetition were used by rhapsodists to help them remember the words and keep their place in the story.

The rosy-fingered Dawn?

For example, characters that have weight and importance in the plot are given epithets that drum dactylic ear-worms into the mind of the listener. This makes them noticeable and memorable. Dawn is rosy-fingered, Zeus is a great Thunder Lord, Athena is bright-eyed. The mythical Helen of Troy is long-dressed, but in Chamberlain’s story, the narrator gives the horsey Helen of Troy less flattering adjectives.

She was a scrawny, commonplace little thing called Helen of Troy. My ex-wife is called Helen. You see how my mind works. She was just as scrawny and commonplace, but at least the horse could run.”

The combination of this repeated epithet and the name Helen makes three points.  

  • It introduces the intertextual link between this story’s ex-wife Helen and the mythical Helen of Troy. And like the mythical beauty, the narrator’s ex-wife is important, and he wants to remember her. 
  • The phrase ‘You can see how my mind works’ shows the narrator conflating his ex-wife with a horse that is scrawny and commonplace. But if she’s so nondescript, why mention her at all? Could this epitaph be grounded in bitterness? 
  • The narrator consciously mentions his ex-wife’s similarity to the horse, but also subconsciously alludes to her similarity to Helen of Troy, so can we assume then that he wants to fight for her, like Menelaus did, but doesn’t want to admit it?

While the mythical Menelaus takes actions like waging war and duelling with Paris to teach his spouse a lesson, how can our mealy-mouthed narrator fight for his?

Drawing lots for the duel.

Another form of repetition Chamberlain employs is the systematic formatting of the story. It’s broken up into six bets over the day (hence the title) which echos the use of Books in the epics. The Iliad, for example, is split into 24 segments whose titles have been translated as Book 1, Book 2 Book 3 etc. But while the word ‘Book’ is arguably a chapter heading necessitated by a longer text, Chamberlain’s story comes in just under 1,000 words. It hardly needs splitting out for readability. So why do it? I think Chamberlain is making use of anaphora. 

Anaphora is a rhetorical device that gives prominence to a single word or phrase by using it as an introduction to text in serial ways (by sentence, stanza or paragraph, for example). 

“I am not in danger, Skyler. I am the danger. A guy opens his door and gets shot, and you think that of me? No. I am the one who knocks!” (Walter White, Breaking Bad)

By putting the word at the forefront, you give it prominence, and by using it in successive examples, you provide clarity of meaning in the reader’s mind. In the dialogue above, you see the speaker reinforcing his new identity by repeating the phrase ‘I am’. So even if you forget what he actually says, you come away with a sense of his self-assurance. 

The natural association of the word bet is risk. Of staking something of value on an unpredictable situation. And it’s a risky strategy to bet away any money that could otherwise be taken in the divorce settlement, but it means the narrator keeps receiving letters from her lawyer demanding her share. He appears to derive no pleasure from betting on the horses, yet the reoccurrence of the bets belies an impulse beyond his control. There are two possible reasons provided in the text:

  • “Better to be last than second to last. Last is something. Second to last is nothing.” 

The first is that it fits into his belief system that it’s better to be the lowest of the low than to strive for middle ground.

  • He is locked, with the horse, in a dour, symbiotic battle of wills.” 

The second is that the gambling kindles his feelings for Helen regardless of how unhappy it makes him. We’ve already seen him conflate his ex with a horse. Replace the word horse with Helen in the quote above, and you’ve got it there in black and white. If he gives up the horses, he has to settle the unresolved division of assets, and once that’s done, what reason would she have to contact him? A battle is better than being cut off.

While Menelaus went to war with Troy to keep his Helen, the narrator wages a war of attrition to keep his. 

Do not trust the horse, Trojans!

A nostos is a theme in Greek literature that details an epic hero returning home by sea. In Ancient Greece, heroes who managed to not only go to war but actually return were the superheroes of the day.

In book four of the Odyssey, King Menelaus announces that he wished he’s never gone to war, and would gladly give up all the riches he accrued on his travels if he could reverse the suffering the war caused him and his men. The term nostos has the same etymological root as the word nostalgia, which literally means the pain of returning home. Words denoting loss are repeated through A Day in Six Bets: Low, loss, late, miss. A sheen of negativity that culminates in a thematic sense of nostalgia. 

Here is our narrator, fifteen years on from his divorce, and still ruminating over it and reacting to it. ‘Goodbye, Helen’ is his final bet, and this time he wins. The only time in the whole story he has reason to celebrate and pathos creeps in. In a self-pitying drink-fuelled lament, he finally realises “my ex-wife had never really gone away and remained camped tenaciously in my heart like an unwanted tenant.”

Perhaps he enjoys having some cash for once. Perhaps he wishes that this dour battle of wills with his ex-wife hadn’t cost him so much. If Menelaus can wish away his success with the Trojan Horse, maybe the narrator feels his ‘triumph’ of loosing on the horses just as keenly.  



Established Heritage: Ambit was launched by paediatrician and writer Martin Bax in 1959 after he was inspired by Rhythm Magazine. It’s now run by Briony Bax, with Olivia Bax as Art Editor. Having established the family dynasty behind Ambit, though, it’s worth noting that the magazine doesn’t rely on nepotism and has had a host of brilliantly talented artists in various editorships. Carol Ann Duffy was once poetry editor, and J.G. Ballard is a former fiction editor, for example. Ambit became famous for rejecting criticism, long reviews, essays and articles in favour of creative work. The mix of literary and visual artists material has always been at the heart of the publication. David Hockney, Peter Blake and Ralph Steadman have all published artwork in Ambit.

Promotes New Talent: Ambit exclusively seeks unsolicited, unpublished content. Editors have published writers with established reputations, but pride themselves on putting new writers on par with famous contributors.

Definitive about Expectations: The Ambit website and Submittable portal are both very explicit about what they expect from contributors. Equally, they’re clear about payment, processes and details.

Unique Opportunities: Not only is the visual appeal of Ambit is attractive for readers, I think, for writers, there is also an unmissable opportunity. Stories are often illustrated. That collaboration process and result is a beautiful and unusual way to get in-depth feedback from your work.


Small Circulation: This could be said of any number of successful lit-mags, and the caveat must be given that Ambit’s readership is founded on the loyalty of subscriptions, which means it’s readers are invested. However, the nature of publishing in print is that however successful your output, it’s rare that you’ll find impressive circulation figures to match the reputation. You’d get more readers publishing a short story in Women’s Weekly if that’s what you’re going for.

Small Submissions Windows: There is a short submissions window for fiction, simply because they have a small editorial team and piles of high-quality submissions.

Very Competitive: Ambit only print 3% of submissions. 3%!


Ambit has long been associated with an anti-establishment stance, partly because of the editorship during the Sixties. Although it steers away from polemical writing, its mere form and content keep this reputation aglow. Editors insist that there is no archetypal Ambit writer, and instead seek out exciting work, regardless of literary reputations.

To read more about the foundations of Ambit, and the personal journey of its founder, Martin Bax, I recommend purchasing Ambit 225 or 237.

Take a look at their submissions policy on Submittable if you’d like to give Ambit a go.

We’ll be taking a look at A Day in Six Bets by Jonathan Chamberlain in our next newsletter, sign up if you’d like to be part of the discussion.

Review: Ghillie’s Mum by Lynda Clark.

Ah, the polecat. The wild cousin of the domesticated ferret. These animals are considered so similar that it is difficult to distinguish either the domesticated or feral ferret from the polecat unless, of course, you can measure “the postorbital breadths of the cranial volumes of their skulls”. 

Importantly, Ghillie’s mum is a polecat when we first see her relaxed. She has no work to do and no expectations put upon her. She’s not looking after a child, visiting a teacher on parents evening, being monitored by an employer or under psychiatric assessment. A small and compact animal, endemic to Europe, the polecat can secrete foul-smelling liquid to mark its territory. This is a very different creature from the grand, mythological dragon Ghillie’s mum becomes to impress her son and grandchildren, or the limby mother orangutang dextrously managing a young child.

This woman has mastered the art of transforming for the people she loves, and yet, when she’s let alone in her dotage, she is an obstinate little rodent ready to protect her place in the world, small enough to scurry away from trouble and, unlike the ferret, completely wild.

Visual appeal

Many short stories are image-based (Calvino, Mansfield, Schultz, for starters). Lyrical short fiction can emulate out from a central image in the same way as a representational painting. If you look at the dramatic symmetry in Micheal Angelo’s Crucifixion of St Peter, explored by Leo Sternberg in his Line of Fate essay, you see the clear plotline between heaven and hell and in the centre, a complex and conflicted character. In the centre of Ghillie’s Mum is, as the title suggests, Ghillie’s mum. It’s her line of fate, her troughs and peaks, her fall and redemption.

The images used by the author are animal rather than human figures. So what do these images tell us about Ghillie’s mum’s character that a human likeness couldn’t?

“Imagery is not only visual, but is also related to the other senses.” writes Ailsa Cox, in Writing Short Stories, A Rutledge Writer’s Guide. As a reader, we allow the imagery of familiar animals to provide tactile, aural, olfactory and visual information into our consciousness. I’d argue that to a writer, animal imagery is particularly useful in providing our sixth sense — our somatic sense — with not only actions and movement, but with the particular quality with which they are made. Not just what they do but how they do it. In the parlance of ballet, for example, there are steps named after animals (pas de chat, pas de cheval) because this gives the dancer a particular quality to emulate in the step’s performance.

Writers are expected to steer clear of adverbs, but how else do you let a reader know about the quality of a gesture, posture, expression or behaviour? Step in imagery: quiet as a mouse, busy as a bee, eager as a beaver. But what does the quality of a movement tell us? Internal motives and intentions, that’s what. The panther barring its teeth, the rolled tight pangolin, the raging tiger are quick bursts of dramatic information about Ghillie’s mum’s inner thoughts and feelings that a purely descriptive sentence would flatten out through clunky explanation.

Non-threatening to readers

When Ghillie’s mum is a human being she is unwieldily, her posture timid, her animations minimal and dialogue sparse. But how are meant to interpret this when Ghillie himself is our narrator? In most of the story, he is working from memories, some of them from when he was very young. His hindsight laden, emotionally damaged and self-centric versions could obscure his mother’s real intentions at the time, from the reader. By simply describing the behaviour of the animals, we remove the suspicion we might hold of a first-person narrator.

Animals are universally recognised. There may be distinctions in how different creatures behave that are due to personality or rearing, but there are no cultural signifiers attached to them. We can’t fix notions of class, race, intelligence, gender, sexuality or interests the way we are inclined with humans. Animals are not subject to subtext or affectation.

Creating political and social satires.

The clue as to what’s really at stake here, though, is when Ghillie’s mum turns into a raccoon, “by way of apology”. The reader has to take a moment to shake out the brain here. So, Ghillie’s mum can communicate how she feels inside through transformation? The act itself? Not just how she behaves when she is an animal but which animal she becomes.

This provides the climactic paradox. Ghillie’s mum can choose what she becomes but is unable to stop becoming. Transforming is an expression of self. She has no choice but to live in the gauze of life because her talent, her transitions, tell her story.

Ghillie’s mum is a hopeful tale, though. Her redemption comes with her transition from The Facility to The Home — two opposite institutions; the first a condemnation, the second a conservation. Ghillie gives the tale it’s twist when he’s rescued, quite literally, by someone prepared to love and nurture him, despite his unusual traits. His life shows the paradigm shift from social repression to social inclusion.

And the swoop from rejection to acceptance in this tale is a social one. Ghillie’s mum is unable to live in a society that would suppress her primary mode of expression. The focus on her animal characteristics represents society’s febrile fears of the unfamiliar. She is considered dangerous and unfit to raise a child. This emphasis on the effect rather than the cause could echo true tales of real people demonised for gay sex, suicidal tendencies, or alcoholism (for example) when the root causes are compassion for and understanding of mental health, addiction or relationships.

A “Lyrical story is distinguished by its emphasis on a central recurring image or symbol, around which the narrative revolves, and from which it acquires an open and flexible meaning.” suggests the Comma Press website. And by using animals to denote otherness, but transitions to communicate subtle human exchanges, Lynda Clark allows all sorts of people to use Ghillie’s mum to represent their story of misunderstanding and unfair treatment.

At rest as a polecat, we can see Ghillie’s mum has learnt how to be resilient enough to protect herself, but wild enough to feel free. Instead of imbuing animals with human personas, Clark makes Ghillie’s mum seem more human as she takes on animal characteristics. But reverse anthropomorphism works in the same way as traditional anthropomorphism: the animals still provide visual clues, the interchangeable typology belie a non-threatening, universal character whose exaggerated ‘otherness’ allows us to transpose anyone who suffers social oppression into the protagonist’s place.

This review was written in response to our latest newletter. Sign up for next month’s if you like.

Have a different opinion? Or something you’d like to add? Drop us a comment.☟



The Good

Established Heritage: One of the UK’s most successful literary magazines, Granta began as a Cambridge University student paper, publishing a mixture of literature and larks. In 1979 it was reinvented by Bill Buford as a literary quarterly with a more international outlook, sourcing features from outside of the university’s student body. During Buford’s tenure as editor, long-form journalism, travel writing, translations, and those now infamous lists of ‘Best Young’ novelists became hallmarks that established a reputation for daring originality. Granta has consistently published short fiction and poetry from the best emerging talents from (primarily) the UK and USA.

Promotes Unknown Talent: Yes editors have been known to commission work, but their primary source of materials is through their online submissions porthole.

Broad Circulation: The media pack says their circulation is 20,000 with a 50-50 split between readers in the UK and US. However, the emphasis on beautiful covers, illustrations, photography and layout mean that many people will keep every copy — increasing the number of readers beyond those estimated from purchasing figures. They also boast 130,000 unique impressions on their website, which is pretty good for a humble lit mag.

Easy Going Submissions Policy: Their guidelines say they’re not too concerned about the length of your short story submission, and that they prioritise great writing above editorial ground rules. They do say that, as a guide, they won’t read much more than 10,000 words. They also accept simultaneous submissions, with pretty clear instructions on how to withdraw work if you get accepted elsewhere.

The Bad

Vague About Payment: Granta provides no public information about how much a writer may be paid (if at all) to have their work published either in the magazine or online. You also need to pay to submit, although I think this is probably wise as it prevents people from submitting in a hurry, and is the nominal amount of £3, which they argue is the cost printing and posting.

Small Submission Windows: The submissions for fiction and non-fiction writing are just a month-long — probably another strategy to sharpen a writer’s attention to detail and prevent sloppy submissions. The next submissions window is 13 October until 13 November 2019.

Long Response Time: Bearing in mind how large their slush pile must be, a six-month waiting time is reasonable.

Very Competitive: The editors have earned a reputation for being carefully selective. Themes emerge from the excellent writing they receive, meaning you need to submit something fresh and relevant.

The Obvious

Mate, if you’ve not been published by Granta, who even are you?

Take a look at their submissions policy on Submittable if you’d like to give Granta a go.

We’ll be taking a look at Ghillie’s Mum by Lynda Clark in our next newsletter, sign up if you’d like to be part of the discussion.

Short story news round-up: September 2019

Hot off the press

Congratulations to the Irish writer, Danielle McLaughlin, who has won the £30,000 first prize in the 2019 Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award for her story ‘A Partial List of the Saved’. This is the “richest prize for a single short story in the English language.” While such an achievement is immense, it’s worth remembering what author Philip Hensher said in his introduction to The Penguin Book of the British Short Story, that “with the same money, the newspaper could develop any number of short-story talents by, for instance, commissioning and running a short story every week for £1,000.”

Upcoming literary festivals

Bristol Festival of Fiction 20-22 September

Crickhowell Literary Festival 28-29 September

The Bath Children’s Literature Festival 27 September – 6 October

Birmingham Literature Festival 3-13 October

Cheltenham Literature Festival – 4 October – 15 October

New short story publications

Etgar Keret’s short story collection Fly Already has started getting reviews in the UK press as the English language version of this collection hits shelves. The original Hebrew release won the prestigious Sapir Prize last year. The FT says “The Israeli writer’s compact stories combine comedy and tragedy to often brilliant effect.”

Chatto & Windus has acquired UK and Commonwealth rights to publish The Girls’ American author Emma Cline’s first short story collection. Due in 2020.

Jonathan Cape has signed the debut short story collection from Frances Leviston. The collection, The Voice in My Ear, will be published in March 2020.

You couldn’t make it up

A seemingly bonkers story from Pennsylvania on The Times website describes how an author wrote his MO into short stories he subsequently had published in biker magazines in the ’80s. Authors get rightly annoyed at readers conflating characters stories with their biographies. That’s why character-led plot development is encouraged, and defensive cries of “it happened like that in real life” are laughed out of creative writing seminars across the UK. But an author will often draw from experiences and circumstances they have found themselves embroiled in. A careful bit of close reading has led to this already incarcerated author being convicted for a long-unsolved murder by US courts.

7 of the best newsletters for short fiction lovers.

1. Specifically for short fiction readers and writers

Run by prolific short story writer Tania Hershman, ShortStops is a website that brings together all the elements you need to either read or write and publish short stories. The newsletter offers competition deadlines, submission opportunities, and information on live events or workshops.

2. For literary luminaries, short shorts and big-money branding

Most of the multinational, conglomerate, bigwig publishing houses have some kind of newsletter. But, if you were to draw a Venn diagram with one side showing how many great short story writers they published and the other showing what value you get out of the digi-letters, then Fabre Members would land smack bang in the middle. Not only does Fabre and Fabre publish one of my favourite short fiction authors (Lorrie Moore, you’re welcome) but they published one of the most exciting short story collections of 2018, Mothers, by Chris Powers (and no, he didn’t write a novel first) and they have been popularising the form with their Fabre Stories series. Not only that but perks include news on events, new releases, discounting, personalised gifts and competitions.

3. For wonderfully warped science fiction and garage-band authenticity

Daily Science Fiction gets stories into your inbox at a rate of knots. Five per week to be precise. It’s not overkill, because the stories are a) good or great, b) short and c) well laid out and so, easy to read on a mobile. A fun little rating game happens towards the end, which as a writer, I find sickening, but as a reader, I love love love.

4. More Women’s Hour than Jenny Murray

Not strictly about short stories but more about offering a leg up to any women writing poetry, novels and short stories. The Mslexia direct mail is pretty sales-y, and primarily used for promoting their magazine, or encouraging entry to their fiction competitions, or attendance at events etc. (no bad thing), but the Little Ms newsletter is choc-full of brilliant article excerpts, job posts, looming deadlines and learning opportunities.

5. For news-worthy highlights, reviews, columns and interviews

Chosen not because it’s better than it’s rivals but for its accessibility. Whatever their political proclivities, all the major Sundays have great books sections, but the Guardian has no paywall on its website, which to most cash-strapped short story writers, makes a humongous difference. My advice? Avoid the constant-bad-news-content and specifically subscribe to their Bookmarks newsletter.

6. For lit mag glory

The Stinging Fly newsletter began under the erstwhile editor Thomas Morris, continued under the editorship of Sally Rooney, and is now presided over by current editor Danny Denton. Not only is the magazine itself great value — and thus the links from the newsletter to the mag — but the Weekend Reads section dregs up some glorious links to internet “treasure”. i.e. articles within their sphere of interest but published elsewhere.

7. For scholarly insights

Class Notes is a newsletter written by the Alan Partridge fan and booker shortlisted writer Jon McGregor. Each letter is a round-up of his seminar notes from courses he is teaching on the MA in Creative Writing at Nottingham University. Not only are they insightful and interesting, but there’s a little wry humour in the mix too. Kiss my face.

There are many other commendable newsletters out there. Have any caught your eye? Let us know in the comments. 👇🏽

Best friends & Brontes

Helen Oyeyemi is something of a prodigy. She wrote her first published novel at secondary school. Now, in her early thirties, she has written five lauded novels, and has two plays, and a short story collection under her belt. She is described as having a ‘restless imagination with a smooth, propulsive prose style,’ and of having characters are that are ‘unexpectedly supplanted’ throughout a single story.

SHORN looked at her short story, “Interesting about A and E” – Best friends and the Brontes, published in the New Statesman magazine in March 2016. Written in the first person, the story articulates the intimate grievances and imaginative wonderings of the narrator. Her voice is consistent, but her scenes and characters only come into focus for short moments. Much like a meandering day dream where within one scene is the spring board for another. Thus, structurally, propelling through transitional but seemingly disparate narratives. A triptych. Each piece featuring a new pair of heroines that relate somehow to the previous two like Russian dolls in duet.

In the first section, one gets the feeling that the narrator is doing what most of us do fresh after a row with a best friend. Going over the details in your head to make sure your feelings are valid, or to articulate your argument after the rashness of anger has ebbed, and as I think is the case here, to rationalise your bad behaviour.

A particular snippet from the row acts as a catalyst for deeper musing. Excerpts from a letter conjure a vivid, but childish game — like Doctors and Nurses — where the letter’s subjects become rounded characters in the narrators imagination. She explores the closeness, the impenetrable, intangible bonds that tie sisters to each other. To each other, but also, in this instance, to their carer, the author of the letter. Pondering, the narrator imagines the affection a child can transfer from a mother to a carer. This takes her on a new tangent.

In the final section, we’re taken deeper into her imagination and further into the past (presumably the early 19th century). The characters are maiden sisters who want to discover something about their fertility. Through the women’s zeal we see their lust for motherhood, or a determined attempt to see into their future — of which motherhood was surely the expectation. It is intimated that one of the sisters believes she can’t or won’t have children.

It is immediately clear from the introductory section that the narrator wants to exert control over her own fate, but is all this later tangental meditation evidence that she regrets this? She covets her friend’s children, describing them as ‘winnings’. There is no evidence that she can’t have children, or that she won’t. There is just a series of intangible notions about fitness and ambition. Notably, there is something about the subconscious act of personal sabotage that comes with the narrators conscious acts of professional sabotage. Perhaps this is why we stay with the narrator through all her conjectures. They are an earnest attempt to map in her mind the snail trails of choice.

Although she does have characters usurp each other after every thousand or so words, which is initially perplexing, it is Oyeyemi’s pin point accuracy with language that carries subtle subtexts. SHORN found the story almost impenetrable at first. But on closer reading, it’s like a zoom into the muddled mind of someone who is trying to put their finger on some unspoken, unrecognised regret. A regret intrinsic to her feminine relations.