Angela Readman first grabbed many people’s attention with arguably the standout story of 2012’s Unthology 3. Despite a series of short story publications and even a Costa Short Story Award since then, it has taken some time for a full collection to make its way to our bookshelves. Readman hints at why in the book’s acknowledgements, when she dedicates it to ‘anyone who ever felt like giving up, but didn’t.’ We’re certainly glad she ploughed on, but does Don’t Try This at Home live up to the promise of that early work?
In Unthology 3, Readman presented us with ‘Before the Song’ – a storming short story with an interesting backwards narrative and prose reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy and Annie Proulx. The stories are different in this collection, though. The prose more her own. And while ‘Before the Song’ wore its dark and twisted elements like a big and bold happy birthday badge, the stories in Don’t Try This at Home work harder to obscure them.
And that’s what makes these stories special. ‘Conceptual’ hides an undercurrent of abuse below the quirky exterior of a family that cuts its clothes from famous paintings. ‘Surviving Sainthood’ is immediately dark in one way, but it makes the theme of neglect a murky background noise that ends up resonating throughout. ‘Shine On’ and ‘When We Were Witches’ both use supernatural elements to highlight some of the plights women face in modern society. And ‘There’s a Woman Works Down the Chip Shop’ tackles homophobia via a mother who cuts her hair into a quiff and suddenly starts to pull with the power of Elvis Presley.
These are all delightful, odd, insightful, and original stories, as are many of those that have gone unmentioned. If standout stories need to be chosen, then it is perhaps ‘Surviving Sainthood’ and ‘There’s a Woman Works Down the Chip Shop’ that stick their head above the parapet. And that’s all without mentioning the Costa prize winning ‘The Keeper of the Jackalopes.’ In many collections that story would make its counterparts look weak, but here there is too much quality to contend with.
Any Cop?: Thank God Readman didn’t give up. There are some real gems here. Fans of the slightly off-kilter will find lots to delight them in this collection, but anyone who needs their stories to be a little deeper will be happy to find the social awareness that runs through their centre.