shining the spotlight on short story collections
Unthank Books, 2014
“Clarrie gave her awkward little giggle, and you did what you always did when you were nervous, you gabbled. On and on you gabbled, you could hear yourself doing it. And then you saw it: Robert and Clarrie exchanging the look that told you what you’d done: cemented your reputation as the one who would never shut up or leave anyone alone.” (Clarrie and You, Elizabeth Baines)
“What people are ashamed of usually makes a good story” (F Scott Fitzgerald). This is a truth reflected in many of the stories in this glittering collection. Several revolve around the moment at which the secret thought, the thing a character most wants to conceal, bleeds out into the world. Underneath the layers, we glimpse the raw, challenging or uncomfortably familiar. And how delicious it is to know the secret thoughts of others.
Angela Readman exemplifies this in the first story in the collection, A Little More Prayer. A young woman, recently rescued from abduction and imprisonment grapples with the disparity between her feelings around the event and people’s expectations. “Don’t think I didn’t fight, I told them.” The ‘them’ here is loaded; her family, the doctors and police are foreign compared to the strange intimacy she feels with her abductor, although the experience had also been traumatic. She feels obliged to hide that they played card games and is acutely aware of the things she learnt and became while imprisoned;
[Mom] doesn’t ask where I learnt to shuffle cards like a pro, when I started to sketch, or why there are so many postcards of kingfishers in my room. She looks at me sometimes, then looks away.
Slapping a Stockholm Syndrome label on it would duck the complexity of her feelings. It is a deftly handled and nuanced story; hidden feelings just nudging through the narrative’s surface.
The second story, KS Silkwood’s Daddy’s Little Secret also demonstrates this overflow of unnerving internal dialogue. The only thing I don’t like about this story is the title. It’s a cliché that carries too many particular connotations (child’s point of view, sexual abuse, misery memoir) that in my view do not reflect this particular narrative. However, the rest is powerful, starting with the breathtaking opener:
My name is George Ashford and late this afternoon I disposed of my daughter’s body.
As the story progresses we begin to question the reliability of this narrator and his perception of his marriage breakdown. The moments when George’s secret thoughts start to glimmer through become more pronounced and harder for him to control;
I wonder if when I have this sort of…speculation, whether other people think these things as well. It’s that thought that justifies my continued […] indulgence in these thoughts. They’ve been steadily building over the last couple of years.
Although what George hides is edgy and unsavoury, we sympathise with him somewhat. It is well paced and controlled right to its beautifully circuitous conclusion.
Secrets push through the skin in Andrew Oldham’s The Lesser God, quite literally as Jakes, the man who’ll wrestle anyone for money and always win, is gradually hardening to stone. Through the story his shameful family history is fighting to get out. It is luscious and spiky and moreish. Set viscerally against a quarry backdrop, it has a lyrically elusive voice that demands a second and third reading to really wring out the truth.
Restoration by Sarah Bowers strikes a similar note. The narrator, Cat, in the aftermath of a painful breakup begins restoration of a neglected Catherine of Aragon portrait. Carefully stripping back the layers to reveal the original portrait, she simultaneously peels back the numbing layers that have formed in her personal life, to a raw and real conclusion.
Conservators develop intimate relationships with the pieces they work on, everyone in the gallery understands this and allowances are made.
The writing is as masterful as the artwork in the story.
The secret truth within Victoria Heath’s The Coroner’s Report is delicate and demands a close read. Heath describes with clinical precision the Coroner and his wife, preparing for a dinner party. It spikes with dark moments; the Coroner, pointedly never named, considers the task of laying the table;
He turned and looked across the room at the bare tabletop. It called out for a body. To position an extinguished life on that sleek mahogany would have been appalling.
In The Regular, by Mark Mayes, the narrator is made to face up to shameful hidden truths by a stranger who knows an uncomfortable amount about him. This stranger is an intriguing catalyst and gives the reader plenty to consider on a bigger thematic canvas; spirituality, conflict, human nature and faith. I also enjoyed Maye’s deliciously cynical riff about chain pub curry nights.
Another common theme within the stories is misunderstanding. It is cornerstone to Kowalski, by Garrie Fletcher. A Polish man, Kowalski, who is haunted by past war traumas, attempts to assert his existence in a fragile multi-ethnic British community. A gesture of kindness is misunderstood and threatens this delicate balance. Fletcher draws subtle parallels between the conflict this cultural misunderstanding causes and the conflict Kowalski has previously experienced. When Kowalski is advised to leave the area,
Despite the heat he felt a chill, something he hadn’t felt since Europe.
Kowalski is a well-drawn character the reader cares about deeply. John D Rutter’s 79 Green Gables is built upon misunderstanding and miscommunication. The narrator John and his partner Pippa, are visiting her family home at the breaking point of their relationship. Their understanding of each other is failing, willingly or unwillingly, and we see these last threads of their shared life tearing apart within the claustrophobic setting of extended family. The beauty of this story is its understatement; what is left unsaid mirrors precisely the relationship’s downfall. It works through the small powerful details. Protagonist John explains;
I’d crammed my thoughts between the lines of last year’s McAlpine Construction pocket diary with an IKEA pencil.
This tells us so much about the character, but leaves the words in the diary unspoken, falling between the lines of the narrative. He offers the diary to Pippa to read. He sees how far the gap has stretched when after reading it he asks her, “So, what do you think?” and Pippa replies, “It’s very well written.” These acutely observed moments give the piece its potency. Even Pippa’s mother is part of this wider misunderstanding;
We’d probably be having… summer pudding because her mum had got it into her head that it was my favourite.
These touches of comedy offer light moments in what could otherwise be an uncomfortably vitriolic tale.
Many of the stories in the collection are playful with structure. Maggie Ling’s Death and The Maiden, is a two-hander; a life-worn woman and a writer of potboiler thrillers share the narration as they watch each other through adjacent buildings. Seeing first person from both viewpoints gives the story engaging poignancy. Roelof Bakker’s Red is comparable to a prose poem using capitalization and stanzas to narrate a woman’s overwhelming reaction to consumerism. It is also another singing example of the internal spilling out into the public sphere. Jose Varghese also experiments with structure in A Writer Tries To Work It Out. Like a Matryoshka doll, the narrative contains a secondary narrative, and the story segways between these two. The reader’s job is to nimbly discern how one impacts the other. It is an accomplished and satisfying piece. CS Mee’s The End of the World describes a pre-apocalyptic world and has no protagonist or named characters but instead tells the story in large sweeping societal strokes. The dry humour and original observation make it engaging:
Now that most of the black tea was finished they had to make do with the less popular teas, the stranger fruit flavours and the homeopathic infusions. Others resorted to coffee.
My favourite story is Elizabeth Baines’ Clarrie and You. Rich with multifaceted believable characters, it explores deep held secrets and misunderstandings. The protagonist, Olive, reflects back on the complex relationship she has with her sister, Clarrie. Baines’ deft touch and acutely observed detail of family relationships make it a story with layers waiting to be undone;
There are things you don’t want to remember, because doing so makes you guilty, after all these years and at your time of life, of ridiculous sibling rivalry.
The second person narration works brilliantly in both intensifying the reader’s involvement in the story and yet simultaneously feeling somewhat accusatory. We empathise with the slights Olive perceives but there are moments when we’re not entirely certain whose side to fall on. The story offers new subtleties with every read.
The story that I least favoured was Charles Wilkinson’s Fresh Water, set in a school community and featuring an unfortunate incident with a crayfish. Although I admire Wilkinson’s story a great deal for its cynical, dry wit and quirky plot, the story dives haphazardly between different character’s viewpoints and I found this perspective-switching alienating and disconcerting. I wasn’t sure where my empathy should lie and it left me grasping for the plot. I think I’d have enjoyed it a great deal more in a longer format such as a novel with a measured pace giving each character more room to stretch. As a short, I wonder if it would be more successful hugely stripped back to clarify the torque point of the narrative; the wonderful crayfish and its metaphorical weight. However, I hugely respect Wilkinson’s endeavour in taking on head-hopping – a challenging, and controversial narrative technique.
The diversity of voice and style in Unthology 5 is impressive and wonderfully liberal; readily including less familiar writers, alongside very well established names. A huge credit to editors Ashley Stokes and Robin Jones that selection seems to be based on whether a story sings, not on who wrote it. Following a highly acclaimed backlist of Unthank anthologies, I believe Unthology 5 is the strongest to date.
About the reviewer: Sarah Schofield is a writer based in Lancashire. Her short stories are published in Comma Press anthologies Lemistry, Bio Punk, Thought X and About You and also Lancaster litfest’s Flax #030: The Language of Footprints, Writer’s Forum and various weekly women’s magazines. Writing credits include Writers Inc and The Calderdale Short Story Competition, The Guardian Travel Writing Competition and the Bridport shortlist.