Sarah Bower reviews a new collection of short prose from Unthank Books

Short, Sharp Shocks

Unthology 1,  Unthank Books 2010.   £12 +p&p

This first in a planned series of short story collections from Unthank Books begins with an introduction bemoaning the fate of the short story in English fiction in recent decades. This is a familiar theme; ever since the inauguration of the BBC National Short Story Award in 2005, a campaign to revive the form has been gathering in pace and stridency. While it is undeniable that many magazines with a distinguished tradition of publishing literary short fiction have folded, and many which used to publish short stories in among the fashion and lifestyle pages no longer do so, it is too easy to condemn this out of hand without considering why it might have happened. The fact is, English readers, as the Unthology’s editors acknowledge, quoting J. G. Ballard, ‘want a big, fat read’. There never has been a golden age of the short story in our literature – we read poetry and novels, and short fiction only a poor third. Even in this anthology, whose stated aim  is ‘an attempt to reverse this trend’, two of the seventeen pieces are extracts from novels.

Perhaps, therefore, I should recommend readers to ignore the introduction and jump straight into the fiction which, however you want to define it, is full of fresh, strong voices giving testimony to all that is weird and tangential, seething under the calm surface of everyday life. In Sandra Jensen’s Write or Die, we witness the breathless confession of Dale, foul mouthed and virtually illiterate, yet imbued with a sense of righteousness and a poetry of vision reminiscent of a figure from Faulkner. A small tragedy is minutely examined within the grinding routine of a poor farming community, the tension of every moment diamond-hard and clear. Lora Stimson’s Post Day similarly takes the ordinary and twists it, a precise quarter-turn at a time, into something dark and portentous, full of unanswered questions which stay with you long after you finish reading the story. In Jenni Fagan’s Impilo, a terrible domestic accident metamorphoses into a touching and lyrical love story.

The short story can achieve a unique intimacy with readers. Author and reader are together in a very tight space. These stories recognise and exploit this power, not only in their minute examination of life’s little details, but through the fact that the majority of them employ a first person narrative. They admit the reader to the narrator’s – often uncomfortable – confidence. Ashley Stokes’ A Short Story About A Short Film and Deborah Arnander’s The Mall use a second person voice, placing the reader in the position of eavesdropper on strange, interior conversations with unseen others.

This collection is edgy, sharp and original and certainly shows that the short story is alive and well among writers if not readers. There are some established voices, but far more new ones, and it is a great credit to the editors that they have put their faith in so many as yet unknown names. The only ingredient which is lacking, everywhere except the arresting cover, which is packed with visual and verbal jokes, is humour. This is what I shall most look forward to in Unthology Two, which is due for publication later this year.

Unthank Books is an exciting new small press and this collection showcases everything they are good at, taking risks on new writers with lively, original and unpredictable voices. I doubt it will change our entrenched attitudes to reading short stories, but I love it for having a go and for doing so with such panache.


….reviewed by Sarah Bower


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