BOOK REVIEW: Unveiled – The First Unthank School Anthology by Edited by Ashley Stokes and Stephen Carver

Unveiled’ is an intriguing collection, most nominally [though not totally] because of its origins. Where the majority of collections are usually built from submissions or tied together with past published work, ‘Unveiled’ is a product of the Unthank School – a literary school/writing community that provides a range of writing courses to a whole host of different people. The school itself is also tied to Unthank Books, an independent publisher of the short and long form – short story collections to novels, and all the good stuff in between. ‘Unveiled’ then, is a collection built from Unthank School alumni – writers that the school has supported since 2011. More intrigue follows, as ‘Unveiled’ is stocked with a distinctive array of works. There are short stories, prologues, opening chapters and select chapters – emotion, family, strange, past, present, future, juxtapositions and scope for exploration. It’s a first, for me at least, to read a collection that presents such an array of work.

The opening piece, ‘Lost Lessons of Imaginary Men’ by Nicola Perry sets the tone for what there is to uncover in ‘Unveiled’. An extract including the prologue and the first chapter, Perry explores New York,

‘a place where an old man can tell fairy tales to teenage boys […] a street artist can stalk a woman […] and a Moth can defy every expectation to become a man’.

The premise is delightfully odd, the work on show, full of promise. The prologue reads like flash fiction [that is a compliment, trust me] the first chapter plays with the use of second person pronoun, the narrator addressing the reader, ‘but you’ll stay a while, won’t you.’ I’m curious as to whether this continues throughout – can it work in a longer piece? Usually I feel it works best in shorter fictions, but nevertheless, the start is riveting.

Various ‘places’ feature in ‘Unveiled’, in different forms and with different tales. From Perry’s New York we come to Berlin in ‘Walls’ by Sabine Meier, a piece that delves into the Cold War era of the city, 1961, before the wall is built. Perspectives are presented – government on both sides of the city, the people caught in between. It’s an intriguing approach to such a significant historical event, though I confess, I wanted a little more from the characters included, specifically of Hannah, a young girl, and her mother Karin.

And so, from Berlin we are transported to Australia in Susan Allott’s ‘Interference’. A novel [I assume, though I could be wrong] set between Australia and England, between 1967 and the modern-day plot in 1997, the work presented [set in 1967 this time] is enthralling. There is drama here, familial drama [affairs and the like] – it is not of soap operas, but of real, unflinching life. The central character [one of] Mandy, is married to man whose job involves taking indigenous children from their families. A clear representation of the Stolen Generations, I can only hope Allott handles such a tale with care, though from the opening scenes given to us, her prose would suggest the piece is in safe hands.

A break from the norm [of sorts] ‘In Control’ by Jose Varghese follows, and so does the appearance of the ‘weird’. A strong favourite of mine [as are most odd things], ‘In Control’ is perhaps a victim of its own riveting nature. I wish the piece were longer – more meat on its bones, because it’s a Black Mirror-esk futuristic short story of wonderful proportions. A plane seems to have landed in the future [2033], where humans converse through wave transference. The central character fell asleep on the flight and has no knowledge of the position she finds herself in. Odder still, apparently, she died in 2030. There’s much to enjoy with Varghese’s piece.

Oddity takes hold in the next piece too, Jax Burgoyne’s ‘Writer’. Here, ‘a man makes a wish on a typewriter to be rid of memories of a woman’. The element of magic, dark unfurling magic, is central to the work, so too is the notion of the unknown. It’s strange to say the least, the extracts supplied – prologue, fifty-three, and one, are intriguing. As with much work in ‘Unveiled’ I so wish I could read a little more.

My hankering for ‘more’ follows in ‘The Red King’ by Nicholas Brodie. Set in the remote Whittier, Alaska, ‘The Red King’ sees Francis Holloway become the subject of a murder investigation. In the first chapter he is arrested, yet there are bigger stakes at play. Francis is on the run, and his past is likely to catch up to him. Brodie’s premise is full of intrigue – utterly absorbing, the prose tight and controlled too.

From opening chapters, we return back to short fiction with ‘No Second Chances’ by Carey Denton. A family drama – of sorts, Denton sets up a neat juxtaposition [and metaphor] between a skiing accident [and the nature of skiing into the unknown] and an oncoming potentially life changing decision to leave London and that life behind. The prose here is tense when it requires it, and explorative when not, letting the characters breathe through the pages. It’s a slick story from Denton, enjoyable and well told, which, if we’re honest, really isn’t always that easy to do.

Nailing prose, and narrative voice, is a skill that not every writer possesses. Claudie Whitaker doesn’t have that issue here. ‘Ideas I Am Sending On Holiday’ is a piece unlike any other in the collection, in that it is told primarily from the POV of a young child. What Whitaker does is demonstrate a sense of naivete and innocence that can only be reached with such specific choices. A young boy, Alistair, aged 7, is abused by his mother. Though the scene presented to us is part of a larger piece [a novel, perhaps], it boasts intrigue about who Alistair might become. Written initially as an exercise in character development, the piece goes to show how exploring different forms can lead to exciting writing.

Another extract follows with John Down’s ‘Roads’. Lifted from his first novel, British Teeth, a piece that ‘looks at why we leave, remain and return, at the consequences of our decisions, and how ordinary people live through extraordinary times’. The extract is then of this ilk. There’s a car accident told from various POVs, and though on a first read it can appear confusing [this may well just be me] there is much potential here from Down’s.

As I mentioned a few paragraphs ago, ‘Unveiled’ trips between time and place – Berlin, New York, the future, in Jacqueline Gittin’s ‘To Sudden Silence Won’ we are taken to 1930s rural Ireland where we meet ten-year old Neall. Another extract filled to the brim with possibility, Gittin’s short piece is told carefully, with details abound. The time and the scene – a fire that kills everyone Neall loves, is refined, the characters believable too.

The past makes itself known once again in ‘The Lantern Man’ by Victoria Hattersley. A novel set ‘in the Cambridgeshire Fens, concerning the disappearance of a teenager, Alfie’, it flicks between 2010 and 1995, the year Alfie went missing. The chapter we’re given sees Alfie’s best friend Tommy, and his sister Diana, visit a man known as ‘Mad Pat’. Apparently, he was in his house shortly before he went missing. Potential aplenty, the chapter is riddled and rife with grim imagery – the house a drug den, no narrative detail spared. There is potential there, when writing something so horrible, to fall into cliché, to make each character a stock character of that life. Hattersley bypasses this well, creating a chapter that expands the story without giving too much away, letting ‘Mad Pat’ be exactly who you think he is.

From 2010 and 1995 we go back further [time machine anyone?] to 1913 in Zoldo, a town in Northern Italy. Here Zoe Fairtlough’s ‘Zoldana: A Woman and A Valley’ explores a coming of age story for the young Iolanda, mirroring ‘the challenges of female emancipation and societal revolutions across Europe due to the Great War’. I can’t lie, this is exactly my kind of thing. And so are the extracts. Titled 1, 2, and 3 [chapters, maybe, though they are short?] Fairlough mirrors Gittin’s ‘To Sudden Silence Won’ – capturing the moment in time with precision and care. There is a strong sense of place here; of who Iolanda is, who her family are, and the challenges she is going to face. At the end of 3, Iolanda vows that she wants her life to begin – ‘to sit at the hearth with my husband and decide what to buy with the earnings’. I fear that little of what she wishes for will come true.

Getting back in the time machine for a final [kinda] time, Lorraine Rogerson’s ‘The Shadows of Moths’ takes us to Peckham in 1921, where two women – Francoise and Lou, are about to meet. The opening scenes [of the novel] explore their first foray with Peckham – arrival and the like. Again, the past is set with care. It’s vital, when writing something set in a specific time, that you pay close attention to the details, not only to make it believable, but also, on a simpler note perhaps, enjoyable. The opening scenes do both, presenting another piece in ‘Unveiled’ that is full of intrigue.

And so, we come to the final two pieces. It’s been pretty bloody good so far. Thankfully, it ends that way too. We have ‘Killing Coldplay’ by Marc Owen Jones, and ‘Shizuko’ by Lloyd Mills – two samples that couldn’t be more different. To take ‘Killing Coldplay’ first [also as a side note, this title speaks to me in many, many ways], Jones’ short story is as passionate about its central themes as it is detailed. Here we have Stefan, a young guy in London looking to seek out his father’s past with the punk scene –

‘where Papa had bought all the clothes from Sid and Jordan, with Vivienne in the back and Malcom laughing at his accent’.

The details are gorgeous and well placed, the backstory with his father, the mini-romance with Anna, another who is seeking such history, is written with purpose. Eventually they end up at the 100 Club together, a sort of knock off version of the original thing [they are watching ‘The Sex Pistols Experience’], where Stefan ‘holds his arms wide, square set in a pool of beer and spit, and screams again, ‘Fick Dich’ and understands’. It’s a great piece, well-paced and well written.

Shizuko’ returns to the oddity of some earlier fiction. A story the requires a second reading, Mills’ plays with reality and fantasy – the strangeness of things. The central character is suffering from a growth behind their navel and the sensation that they are getting shorter – ‘these disturbing phenomena occulted when I thought of you’. The ‘you’ is Shizuko. The thoughts plague, the growth expanding, until they float away ‘up on the currents that all the folk down there know nothing about’. It’s mysterious as it is affectionate, closing ‘Unveiled’ out in style.

Looking back on what I’ve said, the standout seems to be notion of ‘intrigue’ and really, that’s what ‘Unveiled’ is – a collection of intrigue – of writing that is as connected as it is different, as complete as it is boundless, yet to be finished, or yet to be exposed to us. I want to know more. It’s wonderful to be able to read this type of work and be given a slice of so many writing styles and settings. And though they are some pieces that caught me more than others [this is always to be the case], and some where I felt more could’ve been explored and expanded, on the whole ‘Unveiled’ goes to show that the Unthank School is rife with talent.

Unveiled is published by Unthank Books and is available here.

Authors

Susan Allott • Nicholas Brodie • Jax Burgoyne • Carey Denton • John Down • Zoe Fairlough • Jacqueline Gittins • Victoria Hattersley • Marc Owen Jones • Sabine Meier • Lloyd Mills • Nicola Perry • Lorraine Rogerson • Jose Varghese • Claudie Whitaker

Reviewed by Emily Harrison

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