There’s two unifying strands at play in this short story anthology: one, the all-around-the-world motif (Pangea, natch), with writers from various countries involved, and, two, the fact that all the contributors are members of the online writers’ group, Writewords. The second predates the former, obviously enough – the editors, members themselves, compiled the book by winnowing through the works of their writing colleagues to find a representative sample, which happened to be pretty international. So you (I) would be excused, perhaps, if you suspected a degree of back-slapping and showcasing in the compilation. It’s neither the result of an open call for submissions (like many of Comma Press’ anthologies) nor a relatively disinterested ‘best of’ selection à la Nicholas Royle’s Best British Short Stories series. But, thankfully, neither is it an unnecessarily self-congratulatory showcase. Rather, it’s a strong and diverse collection that makes me wonder what other spectacular works are being honed under the Writewords hood. Several of the pieces reproduced here have won or been shortlisted for well-known short story competitions (Bristol, Bridport, Fish) or have been featured on BBC Radio 4, or published in magazines like Southword and Foto8. Which is to say, there’s a very legitimate pedigree on display in Pangea. Now, thirty-four stories makes for a fairly hefty anthology, so I’m not going to look at every piece – and nor did I like every piece – but it’s worth mentioning some of the more memorable stories.
Tara Conklin’s ‘Signs of Our Redemption’ is the story of a slave girl who decides to leave after suffering one indignity too far. It’s a well-worn way of exploring injustice and freedom (and its lack), and the deliberately naïve voice Conklin has chosen comes with its own risks (it’s a little obvious; it’s tricky to avoid condescension). The shadow of Toni Morrison is always there. But Conklin keeps the action quietly sad rather than playing for melodrama, and her prose is beautiful: ‘I still just like the horse, the chicken, something to be fed and housed, to do what I been fed and raised to do.’ Sarah Hilary’s ‘The Wedding Fair’ has the best setting of any piece in the book (matched only, maybe, by the trailer park hell of her other piece, ‘LoveFM’). Ella’s parents, a shoe-seller and a chocolate fondue saleman, met at a wedding fair, and now Ella’s being inculcated into this odd world of pseudo-romance and sleazy capitalism in bad hotels. Ella’s barely-realised dissatisfaction is a subtle creation in a story so rich in detail I’d happily read another hundred pages set in the same world. Sarah Leipciger’s ‘passport’ is a family portrait that manages to show the generational discontents and strife without any loss of affection. The narrator, Heather-Leigh (‘but Tom calls me Heavenly’) is wary and observant and tired (‘There’s all this water under the bridge now, and it’s all full of turbulence.’). There’s an exchange between her and her aged mother that’s terse and sharp and as full of love as anything else I’ve read in a long time. Editor Rebecca Lloyd’s ‘Raptor’ is about a tramp and a liar, the manipulative Violet, and the man she fools to the tune of half a million pounds, the falconer Robert. Both Robert’s naivety (she was innocent of the filth she lived in, eccentric like aristocrats were supposed to be’) and Violet’s superstition (‘Everything Violet owned was lucky and certain things were particularly so because they’d been leant to her by people she hardly knew.’) are drawn with care, and the ending – bleak as it is – is full of a tender optimism. And the falconry, like the wedding fair, is a setting new to me.
Trilby Kent’s ‘Fallout’ is a pithy treatment of interracial adoption and fostering, and her ‘Stealing Their Churches Behind Them’ deals with race relations in contemporary South Africa in an unsentimental, brutal fashion, mostly from the perspective of a self-conscious (though very culpable) emigrant. In an anthology that includes more than one ghost story, Clayton Lister’s ‘The Undercurrent’ – a dead child haunts her grandfather and uncover her family’s secrets – is genuinely creepy. Andy Charman’s ‘The World’s End’ is, in the style of George Eliot, the story of estranged brothers and the threat of industrialisation on an ancient village landscape. Like the best short stories, this one felt like a tantalising glimpse into a world as rich as that of any multi-volume saga. Finally, Shola Olowu-Asante’s ‘City People’, about intergenerational politics and heartache in a Lagos family, expertly captures the helplessness and loneliness of the narrator as she tries to deal with her uncertain pregnancy and her troubled relationship with her own mother.
Any Cop?: Yes. It’s a good collection with sufficient very strong stories to make up for some weaker ones, and enough variety in style and genre to keep most readers happy. Looks like Writewords is incubating some serious talent.