Ox Tales: Air,  Earth, Fire,Water,

Edited by Mark Ellingham & Peter Florence

Oxfam & Profile Books 2009, Paperback

Authors: Kate Atkinson, Beryl Bainbridge, William Boyd, Jonathan Buckley, Jonathan Coe, Geoff Dyer, Michel Faber, Sebastian Faulks, Helen Fielding, Giles Foden, Esther Freud, Xialou Guo, Mark Haddon, ZoŽ Heller, Victoria Hislop, A.L. Kennedy, Hari Kunzru, Hanif Kureishi, John le Carrť, Marina Lewycka, Alexander McCall Smith, Michael Morpurgo, David Park, DBC Pierre, Ian Rankin, Vikram Seth, Nicholas Shakespeare, Kamila Shamsie, Lionel Shriver, Helen Simpson, Ali Smith, William Sutcliffe, Rose Tremain, Joanna Trollope, Louise Welsh, and Jeanette Winterson.

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"Like suicide-butterflies they swarmed from the jungle to die under mini-vans that throbbed drum and bass music; and when the traffic was light, to lie wavering in gentle reggaes that wafted down the mountains like fog. Even in death, the butterflies were delicate and stunning. What a baroque start to a day"

Reviewed by James Murray-White

Oxfam's Ox Tales is a set of four short story anthologies, sold separately, with 38 stories in all, loosely grouped into "Air",  "Earth", "Fire" and "Water", which correspond to the different elements of Oxfam’s work. Each book ends with a description of the charity’s work in each area; Air – climate change, Earth – livelihoods, Fire – conflict, and Water speaking for itself, although many strands and threads flow between them all.

They are lovely little almost-pocket books, with gorgeous covers, perfect for planes and buses, and as a set they read like a veritable who’s who of writing today. Each book begins with an evocative poem on the theme by Vikram Seth. With an average of 9 stories in each, a poem and some specific information about Oxfam’s work, they are well worth the £5 per book. Best of all, the stories are all donated, allowing the royalties, as well as 50p from each book, to go to Oxfam’s work.

The opening lines from DBC Pierre’s story, Suddenly Doctor Cox, quoted above, are staggeringly beautiful and evocative. These lines moved me in a way few sentences ever have. But the rest of the story couldn’t sustain such majestic writing, and dissipated into thin air quite quickly. The tale of the odd Dr Cox and his literal burrowing underneath a building to stake his claim didn’t grab me, despite Pierre returning to the suicide-butterflies in its closing line. Ah well, that’s literature sometimes.

Coupled with AL Kennedy’s story Vanish, Diran Adebayo’s sexy-quirky piece, Calculus, and Louise Welsh’s bleak tale of academic shenanigans The Lost Highway, the "Air" anthology is my favourite of the 4 collections, as this particular set of stories feel like they fit well together and explore the elusive element well.

There’s a great range here, from funny to sad, some not so great and some that try to make a point, couched in fiction. My one gripe is that so many of the "stories" are actually excerpts from novels. Whether adapted or not, they are not stand-alone stories, and shouldn’t be in an anthology describing them as such.

There are however, some real short story gems packaged up in this big bundle: Rose Tremain’s The Jester of Asapovo, William Boyd’s Bethany-next-the-Sea, and AL Kennedy’s Vanish. I loved Rose Tremain’s story because it charts how a dreamy station master in 19th century Russia quickly becomes a man of action and reflection when an important visitor unexpectedly arrives at his out of the way station. The Jester of Asapovo is included in "Earth" – I guess because the situation, of sickness and mis-understandings, is earthy and full of human fallibility. Ivan Ozolin, the Station master, really learns something about himself through the course of events that befall him, and this, couched as it is in great style and delivery, make for a great read.

Another story from this collection that stands out is Fieldwork by Ian Rankin. I hope I’m not giving away too much by reporting that as the core of the plot is a large block of ice, it could fit into the "Water" collection, or indeed the "Air" collection too!

Other stories, such as Nicholas’ Shakespeare’s The Death of Marat ("Earth"), and Esther Freud’s Rice cakes and Starbucks ("Water") and Sebastian Faulk’s A Family Evening ("Fire") seem to only have very tenuous links to their collection themes, but as these last two are marked as extracts from novels-in-progress (boo!) the editors were lenient. Shakespeare’s story also weighs in at 50 pages – a tad too long for inclusion here, methinks.

Kate Atkinson (who, along with Ali Smith, Helen Simpson and ZoŽ Heller seems to be in every anthology I pick up these days) contributes a spunky story Lucky We Live Now ("Earth") about creatures plaguing a young woman against the luscious background of a collapsing and "returning to earth" Edinburgh entirely devoid of other humans.
"It didn’t take long for everything to grow back green. Civilisation disappeared, ‘Back to the garden’, Genevieve’s mother said. ‘And that’s a good thing. Although I miss gin. And a good orthopaedic mattress.'"
Atkinson uses a mix of surreal, creeping terror and humour to conjure up this fictitious scenario.

Mark Haddon’s The Island is also very well written, and highly recommended for the world of fiery passions and entrapment he conjures up within it. The death scene that closes the story combines gore and brutality with a dignified spiritual uplift that few writers ever capture. This story contains a dramatic kidnapping, a sea voyage and a sex scene, as well as strong writing about solitude and longing that remind me of anthropological studies of hunters and gatherers.

Both these stories delve into possible scenarios for our changing worldscape, and should be commended for a great use of fiction in doing so. These two in particular, along with DBC Pierre’s opening lines, gripped my imagination, and brought me in to the elemental world as envisioned within this collection of Ox Tales

James Murray-White iis a freelance writer and Independent filmmaker. He loves wandering the world and the imagination exploring the elements. A recent experience with a family of foxes has fired up his interest in connecting with the wild.

James' other Short Reviews: Various "Sea Stories"

S Yizhar "Midnight Convoy"

Guy Dauncey "EarthFuture"

Hugh Brody "Means of Escape"

John McGahern "Creatures of the Earth"

Various "Park Stories"

Peter Wild (ed) "Paint a Vulgar Picture: Fiction Inspired by the Smiths"
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What other reviewers thought:

The Guardian

British Fiction Suite 101

The Bookbag


The Spectator


The Scotsman