Ah, how I love a good short story anthology – and the latest one from Unthank Books, Unthology 6, is no exception. I may have to get my hands on the previous five to have a look. This collection has everything from poignant realism to more experience and speculative pieces. The variety is wonderful. There’s love, grief, family, drugs, aging, psychological experiments, minor stalking and uncontrollable nasal hair. And references to Dickens. What more could you ask for?
It would take me a great mass of words to review every story in collection, so I’ve done the time test I often like to do with short story anthologies: three weeks after I finished reading it, which stories most stick in my head? The first to come to mind, that’s been going round in my brain since I read it, is ‘The Girl’ by Victoria Hattersley, in which the narrator’s quiet life of video games and commuting is lit by the girl he sees at his station every day. It’s a brilliant story, carefully written and deeply enthralling. I don’t know if the ending is chilling or innocently poignant. That, I think, is what I most like about this story, the ambiguity that hangs over it, that fact you can’t quite make out the narrator. It’s a great and truly powerful story, the kind you don’t stop thinking about after you’ve read it.
I also enjoyed the less conventional stories in this collection. There’s Alexandros Plasatis’ ‘The Story with Yuliya Has a Bad Ending’, told in the form of a monologue, as a man rambles to a bartender. It’s funny, somewhat chilling, and very cleverly pulled off. Robert Anthony’s ambiguous ‘Shadows’ is brilliantly unsettling and Jonathan Pinnocks ‘Hay. ee. Ah. Wrist.’ is distressingly funny and somewhat horrific – in the very best of ways.
Other gems include Roelof Bakker’s ‘Blue’, a very short short story that uses second person masterly to create a brilliant atmosphere and feeling and has a truly superb ending, the sort that makes you shiver when you finish reading. Chrissie Gittins’ ‘Daughter, God Daughter’ was a favourite of mine. It’s a really beautiful examination of family and surrogate family, of how it feels to watch someone grow old and slip away from you. In Simon Griffith’s ‘Stalemate’ we get the opposite – how it feels to grow old yourself. The characterisation in this story is very well done, especially of Henry and Sean, and I really liked watching the various segments and motifs in this story slot together, creating an ultimately very poignant piece.
And then, when I came to Luke Media’s ‘The Novel Factory’, I did a bit of a double take. I felt a very strange jolt of déja vu, until I realised, hang on, I actually have read this before (if you have any interest in how/why click below). And it was a real joy to come across this story again. Beyond my general enjoyment of Dickens references, it’s also just a great story. The narrator is engaging and lovable and the whole story is both funny and surprisingly touching.
A couple of years ago, my short story Headstone (which, in fact, you can read here, if you so happen to be interested), was short-listed for a short story competition run as part of Canterbury Literary Festival. The theme of the competition was Charles Dickens – it was run in honour of the bicentenary of his birth, and the idea was that you submitted a story inspired by a character in one of his novels. Dickens being my favourite author ever in all the history of all books written in all of existence, I couldn’t not enter, and I wrote a sort of monologue from the perspective of Our Mutual Friend’s villain Bradley Headstone (one of my very favourite Dickens’s characters). As one of the shortlisted contestants, I was invited down to Canterbury for a reading, and it was here I briefly met Luke Media, and heard an extract from his short story ‘The Novel Factory’, which is loosely inspired by Great Expectations and came third in the competition. The story didn’t appear in the anthology created from the competition, assumedly because Luke Media had decided to submit it elsewhere (like to the Unthology perhaps), so it’s lovely to finally read it in full.
But my favourite story of all in this collection is probably ‘Niagra Falls’ by James Wall. It’s a really moving and lovingly told story, one that (again… I don’t understand why this keeps happening to me) almost made me cry on a train. It reminds me a little of David Nicholls’s One Day, which I reviewed a few weeks ago – only this story, short as it is, is like a One Day that actually works. In few pages it achieves what I think David Nicholls was trying to do and, to me, failed. But I’ve already ranted at David Nicholls, and feel little need to do it again. What I will say is that I loved James Wall’s story; it is a thoroughly beautiful account of loss and missed opportunities, of the messy nature of life. It seems to me that my favourite pieces of writing, whether in novels or short stories, tend to be like this piece – melancholy, poignant, about sorrow and finding peace. If you asked me to objectively pick the best story in the collection, I might perhaps pick another (I can’t decide), but subjectively, this was my absolute favourite. A truly wonderful piece. And the story’s ending, which I was expecting to be something else, is thoroughly perfectly and thoroughly beautiful.
Overall then, this collection is definitely worth a read. Its variety and range means there really is something for everybody. Even the stories I haven’t mentioned here, even those which perhaps weren’t quite for me, are still written with a strong clarity of style, with skill. The quality throughout is very high and I imagine I’ll be hearing more about a fair few of these writers in the future.
Favourite Story: Definitely James Wall’s ‘Niagra Falls’.
Least Favourite Story: I don’t think I really have one here. There are unpleasant stories, weird stories, stories I don’t entirely understand – but there’s not a single bad story in this collection.
Let’s finish on a quote: ‘The problem was this: he didn’t know the protocol for talking to someone. People talked to him all the time. Asking him to fix a problem with their computer at work, for example. Chris asking him if he wanted to go for a drink. But now that he came to think of it, in all his years he’d never really talked to someone. All by himself.’ From ‘The Girl’, by Victoria Hattersley
Next week: Elizabeth is Missing, by Emma Healey