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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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
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
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
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.