-Reviewed by Richard T. Watson–
The earliest stories were told through word-of-mouth, and passed on with slight variations by being told over and again to new generations. Imagine narrating to groups of rapt listeners, probably huddled round a fire in their cave, hoping the power of the spoken word can hold back the terrors of the night. These were tales to make sense of the world around early mankind, told simply and in a way that connects with something basic and primitive inside us. Salt’s anthology Overheard: Stories to Read Aloud aims to reconnect with that spoken heritage, and asks a scattering of modern writers to contribute their stories in the good old style.
That’s not to say that Overheard‘s stories are fairy tales or myths for the campfire. Nor are there Homeric epics or tales spread out over a thousand and one nights. But like our fireside storyteller, there’s an awareness of the ‘physical power of words’ (in the anthology that opens with a quote from Edgar Allen Poe’s The Power of Words) The focus is on clear, linear narratives, strong focal characters with a clear voice and stories short enough to read aloud to an audience without them getting restless.
Overheard offers a punchy read, with a lot of short, sharp stories from some writers who’re on top of their game. Some are snappy, bitesize, only a page or so, while others take some more chewing. But all of them draw the reader into a contained world, leave their mark, and then move on. And in case you missed the place of the anthology in the oral tradition, editor Jonathan Taylor has arranged the stories in sections with names like Crying Stories, Singing Stories and Whispering Stories.
There are sincere stories of family heartache and support (Sara-Mae Tuson‘s ‘Ill Angels Haunt Me’, Gemma Seltzer‘s ‘My Sister Like This’ or Kate Pullinger’s ‘Estranged and Unanticipated’), alongside the Kafka-esque transformation of PJ Carnehan’s ‘A Changed Man’ – a transformed man who wishes he’d only turned into a beetle – and the fantastical in Catherine Rogers’ folklore-inspired ‘The Derby Poet’ or the downright odd narrator of ‘Frank’ by Claire Baldwin.
Despite Overheard‘s Western bias, there are some stories from elsewhere. In ‘Good Advice is Better than Rubies’, Salman Rushdie contributes a lovingly-constructed depiction of the Tuesday Women at India’s British Consulate, and evokes the dusty India where the rules are there but not always obeyed and the people get by in the gaps between them. Hanif Kureshi‘s ‘Weddings and Beheadings’ offers a different take on the viral beheading videos which so often finish off hostage-takings in the Middle East, and is both uncomfortable and fascinating.
There’s Adam Roberts‘ sci-fi hymn in rhyming couplets, ‘McAuley’s Hymn’, which blends an element of mystical devotion with a touching story of personal loss and sacrifice in a universe at once familiar and yet unique. In just a few pages, Roberts creates his world and, in the space of a single human soul, dramatises the age-old battle between religious morality and science. Religious devotion is taken to a more disturbing extreme by the narrator in Jane Holland‘s ‘The Cell’, which beautifully evokes the isolation of a nun’s cell and her gradual descent into either madness or anther spiritual plane. Rather beautifully, Holland lets the reader see this as both a loss of health and also an outcome to be desired and welcomed.
As with the best short stories, some of the strongest moments in Overheard come when writers drop hints but leave their reader (or listener, of course) to fill in the blanks. For example, Taylor’s own short and sweet ‘Synesthetic Schmidt’ does an excellent job of expressing its character’s long-held guilt, beautifully capturing the physical sensation and effects, giving just enough clues without spoiling it with explicit explanation.
With such a strong line-up of writers assembled, a mix of well-known and less well-known names, Taylor presents a quality anthology. As well as those already mentioned, there are entries from Ian McEwan, Blake Morrison, Louis De Bernières, Tania Hershman (author of Saboteur 2013-nominated My Mother Was An Upright Piano) and Joel Lane (whose own collection we’ve reviewed here).
The oral tradition pre-dates the development of writing, so it seems surprising that there aren’t more books like Overheard. We’re used to the idea of poetry being performed out loud and brought to life off the page; less so with prose stories. But with the increasing number of spoken word events across the country, performances of prose are becoming more popular and Overheard is unlikely to be the last such publication.