-Reviewed by Cath Barton-
The biannual Unthology collections of short stories published by Norwich-based Unthank Books deliberately allow a wide range of stories to ‘rub up against one another’. In Unthology 5 the results are sometimes startling as the reader moves, say, from the gentle restraint of Home Counties relationships in John D Rutter’s ’79 Green Gables’ and a new relationship facilitated by Schubert in Maggie Ling’s ‘Death and the Maiden’ to the remorseless violence of bare-fisted wrestling in Andrew Oldham’s powerful story ‘The Lesser God’. Of course the stories can be read in any order, but however they tackle the book I would expect most readers to come across at least one story which will take them out of their comfort zone and introduce them to new ways of seeing the world.
If I was a little sceptical about this way of putting such a mix of stories together I am converted. Each of the fourteen stories has its own differentiated voice, and those voices can speak one after another and all be heard, just as different tones of voices are audible at a party or in a committee. Some will nonetheless make themselves heard above others by their sheer forcefulness. Roelof Bakker’s ‘Red’ stood out for me in this collection as a superb example of story-telling. The reader is carried along by the actions of the woman who wreaks revenge on consumerism ̶- ‘BRINGING DEATH TO TECHNOLOGY’ – until the story reaches its unexpected, shocking yet completely consistent climax. I was amazed to learn that this is the author’s first published story, so accomplished is it.
Others among the Unthologists in this collection have already found acclaim for their stories elsewhere, and their biographies give useful pointers as to where one can read more of their work. This use of the collection as a taster is a good one, both for the writers and for readers who enjoy short stories, but are often left floundering in a sea of writing which threatens to overwhelm us all.
While there is nothing in this collection which challenges form, there is much excellent writing, and not a little in the stories to surprise and sometimes unsettle the reader. Angela Redman’s ‘A Little More Prayer’ offers insights into the relationship between a girl and her abductor and makes us think of the aspects of such cases that we do not learn about from media reports. ‘Daddy’s Little Secret’ by KS Silkwood plays skilfully with our expectations as readers. There is a wonderfully revealing moment when the apparently loving father swears suddenly and shockingly:
I have every right to wonder why, at the age of six, our daughter finds it almost impossible to hold her fucking spoon properly.
This is a story of great immediacy, told as it is in the first person in the present tense. But what day is it? Has the father done what he says he has, or will he do it tomorrow, or at all?
There are disturbing secrets in several of the stories. In ‘The Regular’ by Mark Mayes, a strange man keeps turning up: ‘at my shoulder, like some big bearded parrot’.
It feels entirely appropriate that The Coroner in ‘The Coroner’s Report’ by Victoria Heath is never named, but remains throughout a little distant, giving the story its edge. In ‘Clarrie and You’ by Elizabeth Baines the secrets carry great sadness, and that is also a quality which pervades Garrie Fletcher’s ‘Kowalski’. Jose Varghese, Sarah Bower, Charles Wilkinson and CS Mee’s stories complete a satisfying collection.
Reviewed by Cath Bartion — Cath Barton’s prize-winning novella The Plankton Collector is published by New Welsh Rarebyte and her second novella, In the Sweep of the Bay, will be published by Louise Walters Books in November 2020. Cath is also active in the on-line flash fiction community.
Photo © Toril Brancher