“Overall, we were pretty impressed” – Unthology 8, eds. Ashley Stokes and Robin Jones

unthology 8It’s eight months or so since Unthology 7 hit the Bookmunch desk, and we’ve been dipping in and out of volume 8 over the past few weeks; like its predecessor(s), it’s a very diverse collection – some of the writers we know, some we don’t, and some we’ve seen in previous Unthologies. This time round, Stokes has prefaced the book with a précis of the editorial selection and ordering processes of the earlier volumes. Risk-taking fiction is, he says, what they’re all about, and we can go along with that; they definitely eschew the typical anthology safety-nets of themed issues and a house style (though we’re not sure that featuring recurring authors across the various volumes is all that much of a risk). Anyway, though: for the uninitiated, this is an anthology of short stories, the eighth in a now well-established series, and, overall, we were pretty impressed.

As always, with an open anthology, the themes and styles varied greatly, and for each piece that resonated with us, there was another that didn’t. There’s no clangers here, mind; just a lot of diversity, and, like everyone, we’ve got our preferences and peeves. To get the latter out of the way: just as we weren’t keen on the Gaudi-inspired story in volume 7, its Munch-based counterpart in Unthology 8 didn’t excite us – though we’ve got to give the editors bonus points for that piece of serendipitous mirroring. Rodge Glass’s ‘Bye Bye Ben Ali’ made us grin, but still, it erred on the side of generic: who’s not met a failed dictator in literature, eh? Amanda Mason’s ‘The Best Part of the Day’ was both sad and touching – the melancholia of the seaside, the unexplained failed marriage – but the ending was too self-conscious, too much a writer gesture towards a kind of transcendent, self-destructive joy that didn’t, ultimately, ring true.

On the other hand, there’s plenty here that really impressed us. Dan Malakin’s Asimov-meets-Ishiguro robot butler in ‘I, Crasbo’ manages to communicate petulance, superiority and existential panic in just the right proportions; Damon King’s ‘Cuts’ has a laconic humour that lingers a lot longer than you might expect from a three-page story; André Van Loon’s ‘The Little World’ sketches out the breakdown of a relationship with considerably more impact than its unadorned style and slight plot might suggest. Laura Darling’s obsessive jigsaw-maker in ’10,000 Pieces’ gives us the best opening lines in the collection: ‘Of course she noticed he’d left. She wasn’t stupid.’ And Sarah Dobbs’ ‘The Imaginary Wife’ is a nice twist on the adultery story: her protagonist meets up with a former lover long after their affair had ended, much to his wife’s despair, but the story doesn’t ask whether he’s right or wrong, but rather whether it’s possible ever to rekindle the same passion – and the answers it provides are satisfyingly ambiguous. Armel Dagorn’s ‘Nora and Anthony’ is a quiet piece, and slightly overwritten (what does our ‘collective, undefined eyes’ mean, really?), but the plot has an unexpected and gratifying dénouement that’s unabashedly feel-good, that made us grin – and the same can be said for the anthology’s final story, ‘A Beautiful Noise’, which avoids all the seedy clichés it lays out like thematic red herrings, and delivers us, finally, a nice guy being nice – not exactly a common trope in the short story as a genre, we’ve got to admit. Lastly – skipping back – Lara Williams’ ‘As Understood by the Women’, featuring Jared, bewildered by his own ‘falling in love with a posh girl’, and, on their wedding day, recognizing that his marriage is doomed, but feeling irrevocably in love anyway, is funny and sharp, with a weird, surprising tenderness. (Williams has her own collection coming out very soon; we’re intrigued.)

Any Cop? Sure. You probably won’t like them all, but that’s the nature of the anthology-beast. Stokes and Jones have done a good job keeping up the pace with Unthology 8 – roll on, volume 9.

 

Valerie O’Riordan

 

 


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