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Park Stories

Ali Smith, Sheena Mackay, William Boyd, Nicola Barker, Hanan al Shaykh, Clare Wigfall, Will Self

" At just past dawn on a winter morning, each blade of grass spun from sugary frost, swathed in the silken haze of low-angled rays lancing into ground mist – then, between the pools and the plantations, where the stag stands petrified – his very stasis a fierce compression of all the fleet movements he's ever made and ever will…"

Reviewed by James Murray-White

I was expecting to be entranced by this collection, steeped as I am in the life of parks and the world of the imagination. I had heard Ali Smith talking about her story as she walked around Regents' Park on Radio 4, and anticipated that this collection of stories would range widely and wildly, as all the authors were encouraged to experience all of their chosen park's resources, including park wardens and planners. By including Regent's Park's own literary website, and exploring the work of its beekeeper, Ali Smith clearly relished her commission, and that shines through in her story. 

Ultimately though I'm disappointed with it as a collection and as a set of individual stories. None of them really fired me up, and I would gladly leave them all scattered over park benches for others to try out, rather than greedily keep them to myself and put them on my shelf. 

Across 10 short pages, Hanan al-Shaykh flits between Kensington Gardens and her character's childhood in Kuwait in A Beauty parlour for Swans. The "dark wilful world" inside the character contrasts with the freedom found within the park, and as embodied as swans, but this comes across as heavy and forced symbolism. Nicola Barker's story, By Force of Will, Alone (set in Greenwich Park) is on the surface, an interesting character study of "the pugnacious Sydney Figge", but one which gets lost in over explanation and hyperbole. In one paragraph alone, there are 4 bracketed explanatory sentences (somewhat unnecessary, methinks) which pad out Sydney's life and antics. It is a shame that this larger than life figure who is the unofficial ruler of the park, becomes boring under all the author's efforts to flesh him out. 

On my first reading of the set, I noticed that I enjoyed each one slightly more than the previous. The first three stories (at least) seem to be based upon strange male figures lurking in parks, and don't really develop much from there. Shena Mackay's story The Running of the Deer is so obviously trying to cram in loads of facts about the location, and this is to the detriment of the story. She gives us Richmond Park's historical, royal, literary and musical connections....then throws in some mysticism and pantheism for good measure. 

William Boyd's The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth didn't grab me as I had hoped it might – neither of the characters are well drawn or that interesting. The inclusion of Yve Hill's Nomenclature of Breezes and Winds as part of the story, and indeed the turning point, fails to lift the 15-page story out of the gentle lull it falls into.It doesn't live up to the potential shown in the opening paragraphs. 

Will Self here seems to have less sparkle than usual. His wonderful meanderings languish around a reflection upon a park, in this case Bushey. It reads as a report upon park life that becomes ever more anthropological in its examination of the goings on and daily useage of the acreage. In his hands Bushey becomes a "sanctuary" for the "extensive and dispersed part-time hunter-gatherers" seen through the eyes of the head park keeper, who seeks amongst his staff for a "certain waywardness". 

This dryness of language contrasts beautifully with what was for me, the collection's highlight: Clare Wigfall's Along Birdcage Walk. This is a love story that floats high above the park, with the birds who are now so tragically ensnared in their cages. The descent into sadness and loss is delivered tenderly, yet with precision. Here is a writer who has taken the brief and used it as a springboard for a poetic storytelling of love and loss. This story shines, and is an inspiring piece for hot summer days, when "the treetops, bowing toward one another, form a corridor pleasantly cool in the summer heat, and for its full length, the branches are strung with gilded cages whose jewel-bright occupants set the air alive with exotic trills and shrieks". Wigfall seductively takes the reader along a gilded avenue of love and its inevitable loss, and it is the gem of this lacklustre collection. The next collection (and I hope there will be more) needs more bite to it, otherwise these will be left behind on the park bench to blow about in the wind and decompose amongst the leaves.

Since growing up in a City full of parks and wild spaces (Cambridge - with the magnificent Midsummer Common and Jesus Green), James Murray-White has always sought out parks wherever he has lived, including Hull's Pearson Park, Princes Gardens in Edinburgh, Bristol's Brandon Hill, and currently various Jerusalem spots.

James' other Short Reviews: Sea Stories

S Yizhar "Midnight Convoy"

Guy Dauncey "EarthFuture"

Hugh Brody "Means of Escape"

John McGahern "Creatures of the Earth"

Publisher: The Royal Parks

Publication Date: 2009

Paperback/Hardback? Paperback (stories printed as separate books within a pack)

First anthology?Yes

Book website: Parkstories.org 

Authors: Ali Smith, Nicola Barker, William Boyd, Hanan Al Shaykh, Will Self, Clare Wigfall.

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The Publisher's Website: Royal Parks 



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"Sea Stories"

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