The Short Story Review: ‘Shoal’ ed., by Alice Olivia Scarlett

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Review by Gabrielle Barnby


These twenty three stories from Thanet Writers are gathered together under the title Shoal, but perhaps a community of reef dwellers might also serve as a metaphor for this collection. There are flashes as brilliant things turn and dash, and lurking in the undercurrents darker places where the living and the dead exist cheek by jowl.

The beauty of any short story collection is that the reader knows that satisfaction will always be achieved in a handful of minutes. Delighted and enthralled they can return to the beginning and read again, non-plussed, well there’s a new adventure ready to begin on the next page. No one is left shortchanged.

Thanet Writers have put together an inspiring collection – genuinely inspiring because it makes this reader want to write not to just read. It makes the reader remember how an idea or funny coincidence that was sad and somehow tragic might just be something that might one day be written about. In Shoal each writer has taken up those stray ideas and added style and substance to rig out their stories, to create these bright fleeting creatures.

Thanet Writers swim in the waters of the big themes: sex, marriage and death. From the opening storyFirst and Last, 1917’ by Catherine Law we are in both the realms of bitter truth and worlds that cannot be seen and touched. The poignant well set mystery follows the lonely afternoon of a good wife, who is also a beaten wife, and who receives an unexpected visitor who comes, ‘over marshes as dull as sheep’s scat in winter, acid green in spring.’

Tender emotions are also evoked in ‘Another Hot Chocolate’ by Lannah Marshall a deftly placed exposition of trauma as two women at school together have a chance encounter. This modern realism, considering the psychological traits of the protagonists as key, is in someways a companion piece to ‘Black Frost’ by Alice Olivia Scarlett. Whereas one hints at the bleak and damaging effects of persistent victimisation the second is rampant and explicit, Snow is a dangerous unrepentant soul whose worse deed would be laughable if it weren’t true. It couldn’t be true? Could it? The reader is given a trial of breadcrumbs to follow in both stories, and the deliciousness of the endings provides a sweet surprising twist.

Providing a twist, a killer last line that throws the whole story into a new light ambushes the satisfaction felt by the reader. It is a test of skill whether the story’s construction, the misdirection of the reader, and passing of information results in a successful pay off.

Of all the stories who used this device ‘Lucy’ by Sarah Tait draws the deepest emotional reaction and provoked an immediate re-read. The prose is simple, unburdened by unnecessary details. The observation of human nature is honest and unflinching, ‘I know lots of people disapprove of my choice, and think I should be at home with her all day.’

From the sublime to the undead, in ‘Life and Times of A Zombie’ by Matthew Munsonthe reader is given a feast of genre fiction. We are fully immersed in the flesh-ripping consciousness of Ryan, in an innovative  take on zombiehood. The writing is humorous and surprisingly relatable, more so perhaps than the ‘The Lickspittle Leviathan’ by David Grimstone. Here the reader heads into weird and wonderful territory, think Doctor Who meets Treasure Island, meets Flowers in the Attic. The metaphor of a beautiful reef populated by bright and beautiful creatures stutters somewhat here, hold onto your stomaches, ‘He took a lover…from below.’

Keep holding, because I haven’t got to ‘Cuke’ by Luke Edley yet. A vivid splatter of a narrative with the rhythm of a shaggy-dog story and the language of a soft-porn chat room. It’s not for the faint hearted, and utterly hilarious. The much maligned vegetable does not emerge well.

But that was all sex, and there is more to say about death. ‘The Second Floor’ by David Chitty is an intriguing gem, the muddling of stereotypes in the context of the seemingly mundane bureaucratic process is a glorious forerunner to the unfolding action, ‘I start to say something but Simon holds up her hands and stops me.’ Stay on your toes because every sentence counts, in fact every word counts and this is why this story is so successful. It’s good and short, mysterious and unnerving, the tension upheld until the final paragraph. The juxtaposition of cool-headed logic in the midst of bewildering paradigm shifts is brilliant.

I can only hope for more from the Thanet Writers, many of these stories are accomplished; they are a daring, mysterious and entertaining shoal. The reader will find information at the back of the volume providing biographical details and links for further reading which is useful when a piece has been particularly enjoyable.

I would have thought the man whose story sits in the middle of the collection, a certain Charles Dickens who made Thanet a regular haunt, would have been delighted to see so many writers brought together and sharing their work.

You can purchase the anthology Shoal here.


RRP: £9.99

Published by: Thanet Writers supported by Arts Council England

Pages: 250

ISBN: 978-1-912673-00-1

Gabrielle Barnby lives and works in Orkney, she writes in wide variety of forms including editorials, book reviews, short fiction and poetry. Gabrielle’s work has been published in Northwords Now, The Stinging Fly and other anthologies. She has also been commissioned to compose and perform poems for local anniversaries and events. She is the author of a novel, The Oystercatcher Girl (2017) and The House with the Lilac Shutters and other stories (2015), both published by ThunderPoint. 

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