BOOK REVIEW: Chains: Unheard Voices – Short Story Anthology

Short story anthologies are [for me at least] a treat. Something to dip in and out of, to revel in, but only for twenty pages or so, before returning to the everyday. You could say, a book for the modern world.

This is where we find Chains: Unheard Voices, a first-time publication from Margo Collective – an independent publishing company comprised of Hannah and Magda, a company that, as they say, has been born out of an ‘addiction to good storytelling’. Stories that ‘wrench the heart and punch the gut.’ Given my own tastes, I’d be inclined to wholeheartedly agree.

It’s no surprise then that the eleven stories that call Chains: Unheard Voiceshome are of that ilk. A collection is inspired and indeed influenced by Muriel Matters and Helen Fox, two women who chained themselves to the Grille of the Ladies’ Gallery as part of a suffrage protest taking place outside the British Houses of Parliament in 1908 [marking the centenary]. Their work – and protest, a pivotal marker in our collective past, present and future. [I urge anyone to go and read further about them, especially within the Women’s Freedom League.]

It is chains – and all their facets, that becomes the theme. Do they bind us, constrain or join us, and how do you portray that in eleven short stories? A concept to connect, both literally and figuratively.

Epilogue’ by Shyama Kasinathan takes the figurative route – the chains of life, of things said and unsaid, events and moments that refuse to let go. A story of attempted suicide, the prose excels when we hear from Vic, the woman who pens what she would’ve hoped would be her final note of goodbye – of explanation too. An emotive piece no doubt, capturing the aftermath of such an act, it left me wanting a little more – more depth from the characters and perhaps more from the prose.

The medicinal theme is continued in ‘Incubus’ by Josh King. Hospitals once again at the forefront. The chains less material and more ethereal, King illustrates a slice of family drama, but it’s more than just surface level. Polly, the protagonist, has a demon on her chest, and her Dad is suffering from dementia. Affecting throughout, ‘Incubus’ delivers a winning opening line –

On his deathbed, Polly’s father, who was touching the frontiers of senility, told her that his biggest regret was spending so much time masturbating.

Liking, Lumping and the Fancy Woman’ elevates the tone further. Humour is to be found in the darkest of places and Paul Brownsey handles the elements of bullying and childlike fascination in the adult world with care. So too does Elisa Webb in ‘Help, My Dog is Isaac Newton’, a tale of death and reincarnation. It’s one of the strongest pieces of the collection, mixing the comical with the mournful, ending on a deliciously amusing tone – Bill, the lead, musing on the fact he believes is dog is Isaac Newton reincarnate, notes, “after all it could have been worse. His dog could have been Hitler.” Well, quite.

Chains: Unheard Voices, like many a collection, ducks and weaves with diverse voices and diverse narratives. One page you laugh, the next, you lament. ‘Crawl’ by Jennifer Hayashi Danns is nothing short of such poignancy. Cleverly composed, the piece takes us to the near [likely] future – a post-Brexit Tory government England where universal credit has become a thing of the past. Through the eyes of a reporter we are led to an abandoned Liverpool abattoir where a god-fearing family are feeding the poor. Noble? Hmm, stick with it. The rich pay to feed the needy [for their own self-gain] and Danns drives us to a disturbing ending that packs the punch Margo Collective were no doubt hankering for.

Gargoyle’ by Rajeev Chakrabarti works on a similar affecting plain, as does Joey Simons in ‘Amateurs, All of You’. Here we meet a physical manifestation of the theme.  ‘Gargoyle’ speaks of torture, the language and imagery Chakrabarti conjures unflinchingly moving, creating a link, quite neatly, to the world of reality and the imaginary that Josh King imbues in ‘Incubus,’ as well.

Amateurs, All of You’ is an intriguing one – a miscreant of a tale thanks mainly to its narrator. Playing in the sandbox of second person, Simons storytelling is neat, the courtroom drama he creates biting at every turn. ‘Anchor’ by D I Southward takes a dip into the realm of second person narration as well. The prose is stirring to say the least – the imagery rife too, yet at times the plot feels a little disorientating, although that is not to take away from the subject matter nor the piece as a whole, the chains here figurative but weighty.

The final three pieces to uncover within the collection – ‘Jambanja’ by Ethel Maqeda, ‘The Sub-Regional [Interim] Unit Manager’ by Andy Warmington and ‘Identity’ by Lesley Strachan again take the theme in different but compelling directions. In ‘Jambanja’ Maqeda transports us to a shanty town where a woman takes a late-night trip home from work. The elements are at work too – the light and the dark, the moment in between, and as with Southward’s work, and Dann’s, there’s a higher power at work within the prose, the government making itself known – the chains of poverty too. ‘The Sub-Regional [Interim] Unit Manager’ diverts us elsewhere. Dennis is the central focus, taking up the role that the title suggests. Comical and relatable at every turn, Warmington has the knack of creating believable characters in such a short space of time – both in Dennis and in the supporting cast as well.

The final piece that signs-off Chains: Voices Unheard, is ‘Identity’ by Lesley Strachan. I tend not to concern myself with the ordering of short story collections but with ‘Identity’ it feels an appropriate final moment. Seven pages long – but poignant and sobering – Strachan brings us Kate, an actress and protestor, part of the suffragette movement. Set on the eve of the election, and with nod’s to Annie Besant, a woman’s rights activist [google her people], ‘Identity’ encapsulates all that the collection aspires to be. The prose is moving, the content essential, the capstone ending – Kate walks on stage mid-male performance to shout ‘Votes For Women’ is paramount. A piece that resonates in our current political climate [or indeed in any political climate where there is something worthy to fight for] the final words perhaps say it all – ‘Solidarity’. A great story to round off the collection.

Chains: Voices Unheard is neat and fresh – both in its intent and composition. Some voices are stronger than others here, as is with any collection – not every story can resonate with one reader the way it would with another, but each piece took, with both hands, the theme and moulded it uniquely. A wonderful debut publication from Margo Collective and a worthwhile read.

Chains: Unheard Stories is published by Margo Collective and is available here.

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Reviewed by Emily Harrison

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