An encounter at a playground has as much unspoken barbarity seething beneath the surface as a meeting with a bear, and a flight on a mythical beast. The characters in the tales selected by editor Ashley Stokes and Robin Jones have little to loose, which makes them all the more compelling. More than one have demons on their shoulders, and reckless bravado seems par for the course within a few pages. It’s a dizzying read, full of bile, venom and tantalising swoops of the imagination. These are worlds to visit, and then disentangle yourself from, breathless and relieved.
In K.M. Elkes’s Ursa Minor, the brutality of IVF treatment brings a primitive urge to the surface.
In The Best Way To Kill A Butterfly by Hannah Stevens, that urge breaks through as something enchanting is turned ugly with shocking speed: “At dinner parties it became customary to have butterfly centrepieces. The insects would be pinned to cork and cased behind beautiful frames.”
Looking at the way crazes take hold and how we can succumb or resist, this story feels like it’s about far more than an influx of insects, examining instead our desire to possess, and to belong.
Elaine Chiew’s elegantly composed Confessions of an Irresolute Ethnic Writer lifts us into the heights of mythology and magic realism on the back of a demigod who seems unexpectedly relatable. Yet it’s the Ethnic Writer of the title with whom she asks us to empathise. “The Ethnic Writer looked at once earnest and disconsolate. ‘The question is no longer what one talks abut when one talks about race. But rather, what more can one talk about when one talks about race?’”
And all this while faced with a gigantic bird-like creature spawned by Buddhist and Hindu mythology, who just happens to be carrying an elephant and a turtle in its claws ready to snack on later.
It’s the skill of the author than makes such scenes seem almost commonplace.
This talent is shared by many of the authors in this Unthology, as a woman evokes spirits through hand drawn maps, and a desperate man on a bridge is confronted by “an orb of vibrant disturbed energy.”
Yet it’s the realism between the magic that draws you in each time – gritty beneath your skin and bitter in your mouth but persuasively, emotionally, true and, in some cases, disconcertingly recognisable. We’ve all been there, on that bridge, facing up to that bear, pretending to be more courageous than we really are.
These are stories of life, and a little bit more, multi-layered and extraordinary even in their most everyday moments.
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 book review, please send an email to judydarley(at)iCloud.com.