So it is with this upcoming anthology, The End, from the adroit Unthank Books, commissioned by Ashley Stokes, for which authors were invited to respond to the artwork of Nicholas Ruston. Each painting itself uses the words The End, imprinted on shadowy backgrounds that offer the sense of a narrative drawing the close.
With a subhead of Fifteen Endings to Fifteen Paintings, you know you’re not in for the sunniest of rides, but with contributors ranging from Tania Hershman to David Rose and u.v.ray, you’ll want to hold on tight, right till the actual end.
The variety is wonderful. Each story examines a different image, veering off in dazzlingly unexpected directions. Yes, there are deaths, but also near misses, recoveries and quiet moments of realisation.
In The Slyest of Foxes, Angela Readman treats us to a breath-stoppering observation of a man on the run taking desperate action. Seen through the eyes of Alice, her self-confidence decimated by a failed relationship, and set against an idyllically bucolic setting, there’s a steady build of suspense, so that the ending comes as a chance to finally release the breath you’ve been holding. Alice’s decision to hold off making a decision by making soup is a masterstroke, weaving scents of coriander and frying onions around us as the tension simmers.
Chaconne In G Minor by Zoe Lambert is an impressively controlled, delicately nuanced examination of grief. We feel what the protagonist feels, and while her partner is a somewhat shadowy character, her mother is vividly real, from the blood clots in her legs to her stifling determination that her child should succeed, in music, and in love. The emotional distress of the main character is portrayed in physical form: eczema around the eyes and instant migraines, while music itself, which its mathematical foundations and soaring expression, is both a solace and a blight. The fact that the tale deftly ends in its beginning is an added delight of symmetry and form.
In Harbour Lights by AJ Ashworth, loss is experienced as a feat of endurance, embodied in a darkness so absolute it seems it will never be broken. Love and dread are eloquently portrayed through memories and dreams. As one character reminds Didier, the protagonist: “You loved her…. She loved you – that much was obvious to anyone… We should all be so lucky to have something like that.”
A lighter note is struck in Ashley Stokes’ Decompression Chamber, in which we follow a chugger (charity mugger) through a mostly fruitless day, which ends in an encounter so strange we’re left to wonder whether the chuggers, by their very existence, could save us all. A lovely story with some moments of real magic.
Burning the Ants by Sarah Dobbs is a powerful, self-contained examination of sibling love and hate, and what can happen when a single moment of chance sets their lives on new paths. Exploring ideas of identity, rivalry and loyalty, it is one of the longer tales in the anthology, and merits every word it contains.
Which brings us back to the beginning, and Tania Hershman’s opening assortment of End-inspired flashes, a tantalising entrée to the meaty mains that follow. For me, often the starter is the best part of any meal, with exquisite flavours laid out to entice and intrigue.
This evocative anthology of short stories and flashes is the perfect example of life imitates art imitates our darkest imaginings. From beginning to end and back again, it’s a book to read more than once, and to relish.
What are you reading? I’d love to know. I’m always happy to receive reviews of books, art, theatre and film. To submit or suggest a review, please send an email to Judy(at)socketcreative.com.