Publisher: Unthank Books
Review by Rupert Dastur
With Unthology 10, Unthank Books continues its brilliant series of short story anthologies, once again offering readers a marvellous medley of narratives that will have you laughing and weeping from cover to cover.
Children are a recurring concern within these pages, with several of the short stories alighting on this theme with skill and sensitivity. My favourite short story within the anthology, ‘The Best Way to Kill a Butterfly’ (Hannah Stevens), explored this matter with such gut-wrenching brilliance that it actually brought my legs to a standstill on a semi-busy street. (Yes, I was being one of those weirdos who walks and reads at the same time.) The prose is pared back, but this isn’t a quiet story. No, sir. This is a world of murdered butterflies, infidelity, blood, and grief. The title alone is a lesson in titles and should have you clamouring to buy a copy of this book. Immediately. Like right now –> link.
Okay, you’ve bought the book. Good.
Where were we? Children. Kathryn Simmonds opens the anthology with ‘Rosa and Kelsey’ in a short story that places the metropolitan Mathew – a London-loving, Guardian-reading father – in the heart of the countryside. This puts him beyond his comfort, as too does fatherhood and his story counterpart, Ian – also a father, but local, and an easy-going painter & decorator. Although the plot is fairly uneventful – effectively mirroring a typical countryside meander, perhaps – Simmonds paints an impressive portrait of a somewhat dislikeable, repeatedly emasculated man who’s trapped in a life brought about, at least in part, by his own unsociable, spineless ineptitude. A few redeeming hues might have brought the character greater colour, but it’s an enjoyable read.
The lack of children is a reality K. M. Elkes contends with in ‘Ursa Minor’, another winning piece that pitches a wife’s desperate desire for a baby against the husband’s increasing resistance. There’s a clinical tightness to the language that reflects stark, medical practicalities of conception and IVF treatment, while exposing the mental strain of longed-for motherhood. These tensions are reinforced by settings that switch between a vibrant, noisy, life-bursting forest and the sanitized stillness of masturbation rooms and white-walled surgical theatres. What’s more, as one might guess from the title, there’s a grizzly bear whose presence offers danger, metaphor, parallel, and structure. This is a remarkably good short story.
Also examining birth and its tribulations, is ‘Livestock’ by Valerie O’Riordan who delves into the mind of a single, twenty-something, mother-of-one, who works as an Artificial Inseminator of farm animals – in this case, cows. The voice of this story is wonderfully powerful – the loudest of them all in the anthology – and grabs you by the hand, dragging you all the way along the pages with its vulgarity (a fistful of fucks), brutal frankness, and general roller-coaster language – right until you reach the final sentence in a great huff of exhaustion, trying to digest everything that’s happened (in short: our hero drives a farmer’s daughter to the hospital while revelations bleed through the narrative, literally). A quality short story that captures a complex psychology that’s both tender and terse, O’Riordan should be congratulated for this compelling piece.
First person narrations are further found in Brian Coughlan’s ‘One for the Ditch’ and Jay Merril’s ‘Cafeteria’. The former is a slightly bizarre short story about an old sot who seems to spend much of his time arguing with himself. The writing is good and while the plot misses some of the urgency of the other stories, it does offer some lighter relief. Merill’s piece is shorter than most, at five pages, and is written from the perspective of a young girl who observes various interactions between her charitable mother and a woman called Mary who is, or seems to be, a prostitute. Occasionally the diction seems too sophisticated for the speaker (‘unnerved’ ‘gangway’, ‘expressionless’) but it’s a sympathetic rendering and the last line, in particular, gives the story great depth.
Another powerful voice can be found in Tom Vowler’s ‘Blowhole’ which is presented in the form of a letter, written by a girl called Susie. This is a clever, sinister short story that’s told with a brilliant, beguiling breathlessness. With few line breaks and no direct dialogue, the prose piles on repetitions and suggestions until you’re feeling the terrible weight of the narrator’s situation. Susie, of an indeterminate age (though she seems (too) young), displays a disturbing innocence while living with a thieving, violent, possessive Preston, a merciless cat-killer who seduced her while she was as school-girl. Vowler employs a conversational style that effectively dampens the drama of the content to provide a worryingly light-hearted sheen while adding an ambiguity that’s sweat-inducing.
Dotted between the more realist pieces, Unthology 10 contains a few whirlwind adventures and fantastical places. Liam Hogan’s ‘Tenth Circle’ is a delightful, on-the-nose peek into medieval-age publishing with modern-day particulars (marketability, bestsellers, production costs) conjuring a conversation between the stubbornly poetic Dante and his would-be publisher who makes a host of (not so) helpful suggestions: try prose, make it less doom & gloom, write what you know. It’s a fun, playful piece that reads effortlessly.
The title of Elaine Chiew’s short story ‘Confessions of an Irresolute Ethnic Writer’ almost caused a mild groan (you know the one, the ‘oh no, another writer writing about being a writer’ type groan) but fear not, we’re in safe hands here with Chiew who propels us into lands strange, mythical, and not a little absurd. The protagonist, the Ethnic Writer [sic], is launched on a quest (with pen and notepad, naturally) with Garuda, a sort of half-God bird-like creature (with elephant and turtle in his claws, naturally). Their mission, ostensibly, in typical quest-like narrative, is to fetch ‘soma’ (mead) and ransom it in exchange for Garuda’s mother. On this journey there’s lots of flying, eating, and revelation. It might be that the Ethnic Writer has drunk too much off his own soma or has imbibed some other choice narcotic and is hallucinating in the manner of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Who knows. The story is filled with twists and turns and is not, I think, designed to be neat and tidy. Possibly, the story’s saying something about a writer’s identity and the mix of cultures contained within the self. Or not. Readers are welcome to make their own conclusions.
Strange happenings, albeit of a supernatural, spiritual nature appear in ‘A Moment Could Last Them Forever’ by Daniel Carpenter. I thoroughly enjoyed this piece which used some clever techniques, in particular the withholding of information, to build intrigue and tension. Our protagonist’s client, Edna, wants to communicate with her dead husband. What follows are some interesting ideas and visually striking processes, as well as a soft, poignant look at loss.
Mark Mayes, a regular of the Unthologies, burrows into the mind of man who’s recently undergone the twelve-step programme for alcoholics. Standing over a railway bridge the character muses upon a range of subjects: booze, women, suicide, his parents, violence in the area, the retreat… Mayes’ story in the last anthology had greater drive, but it’s clear the psychology in this piece is drawn with considerable care and consistency.
‘When Nature Calls’ by Gareth E Rees succeeds in treading a difficult tightrope between comedy and tragedy. The setting and characters are theatre-esq: the old, stubborn, hippie landlord Rizzie and her younger, refugee, lodger-friend Maleeka, clinging to their home which is, itself, clinging to the sides of a crumbling cliff. Old and new themes are sandwiched between eleven pages. Although at times it felt like there was too much going on here for a story that’s relatively short, my desire to read the next adventure of this unlikely pair is testament to power of the world created by Rees.
A difficult marriage, children, culture-clashes, myths, strange visitations… Tracy Fells’s accomplished short story has it all. We learn that ‘at nine years old Mo had decided one god wasn’t enough. If you were to protect and keep safe all those you loved you needed a whole battaliomn.’ Thus Mo, now a father and husband, has a handful of deities he prays to and thinks of, compulsively, obsessively, and all under the desire to safeguard those he cares about, despite the kinds of truths surfacing that might turn a man bitter. The entire story is written with an empathetic delicacy, each character displaying levels of kindness and stoicism that is unexpected, but refreshingly touching.
Concluding the anthology, ‘End Times’ by Maxim Loskutoff uses first person perspective and, like O’Riordan’s piece, a car setting. This claustrophobic space is filled with Elli, her boyfriend, and a much-loved, semi-tame wolf who’s been shot and is slowly bleeding to death. The short story is a perfect example of beginning in media res and the events leading up to the opening are never really clarified, offering readers a tantalising blank space for speculation. Loskutoff immediately establishes his characters and the tension of the situation:
‘Elli wouldn’t let me stop until we’d crossed the line into Utah. She was a nail in the passenger seat – rigid, sharp, her blue eyes darting back and forth between the speedometer and the double yellow lines.’
What was remarkable about this story was the author’s ability to create a desperate situation in which all three characters (I include the wolf in this) are loved and love. One feels sympathy for each of them, despite their faults. A wonderful short story to conclude the anthology.
These fourteen short stories reveal the dazzling variety the form has to offer and the editors Ashley Jones Stokes and Robin Jones once again bring together an anthology of writers who display startling talent. Here’s to ten more Unthologies.
Rupert Dastur is a writer, editor, and founding director of TSS Publishing. He studied English at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where he specialised in Modernism and the Short Story. He is Associate Editor at The Word Factory, a leading short story organisation based in London, and he has supported several short story projects and anthologies. Rupert’s own work has appeared in a number of places online and in print and he is currently working on his first novel.
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