Mechanics’ Institute Review is an annual anthology of new writing, edited and produced by students on the MA in
Creative Writing at Birkbeck, University of London. The anthology now
in its sixth year, is produced under the direction of author and
Birkbeck tutor Julia Bell.
"I watched fascinated as
the needles took up their familiar and soothing dance through the wool,
their clicking lost in the awful crescendo coming from the door."
Reviewed by Jason Makansi
Don’t be fooled by the name (like I was). I didn’t know what the
Mechanics' Institute was. It sure didn’t sound like a place where
quality writing took precedence over, say, car repair. Happily, a
surprising consistency in quality and depth permeates these twenty six
stories, many with a decidedly British veneer (although two of them
remind you that America may be the rougher, tougher version of
England). I wondered whether this is a testament to the authors or the
editors. No matter. To deliver such a diverse collection with only one
or two falling in the "unreadable" category is quite a feat. Barring
those few, I was able to capture some quality in each of them that made
them worth reading.
story by Peter Ho Davies, as close to a "known quantity" author here,
spills more wisdom about writing over the edges of its pages than an
entire essay I just read in one of America’s leading intellectual rags
by a well regarded writer known for his "southern" sensibilities.
Davies’ What You Know
reminded me of a latter-day Proust, the agonizing (in a good way)
mental gyrations, in this case of a writing instructor grappling with
why one of his students just shot and killed his father.
gap between thought and action is so fine. It’s like standing on a
cliff, the way the fear of falling makes you want to end the tension,
take control, jump before you fall. I felt the death mole if you like.
I felt it burrowing forward, undermining me."Four Corners,
by Maggie Williams, does a good job of re-working the cliché of a man
picking up a woman in a bar. As I started reading, I couldn’t decide if
this was going to be the most abridged caricature of Lonesome Dove I’d
ever read or endless lyrics for a country and western tune. Once you
get past this particularly awful line – "Trouble is a two-lane road. I
expect she’d be bringin’ just as good as she be gettin'" – Williams
delivers real charm and curiosity about two accidental lovers.
Notes of Experiments on Mice and other Mammals,
by M L Stedman, is a terrific tale of a terrible young man. I’d plant
this one squarely in the horror genre, but the shocking sexual overture
that takes place at the end I found to be an original twist. Let’s just
say if this narrator moved in next door, you’d probably put a "for
sale" sign up pretty quickly.
Loving Relatives, Mary Irene Masaba, may not have been a scintillating story but I did enjoy learning about funeral customs in other countries. Confessions of a Fuzzy Man,
Maggie Wornersly engaged me but after trying a few times, I didn’t
really understand what the narrator’s physical deformity was. However,
like Masaba’s tale, I felt a great deal about the horrors of battle, in
this case World War I. Hope and the Stag,
Johanna Ingham, wasn’t one I particularly cared for, but I also thought
it read like an excellent piece of adolescent poetry and since the
narrator is an adolescent, why not?
My favorite of the lot, though, is Revolutionary Colours,
by Moira Sharpe. After four brief pages, I felt I had been affected as
if I had just read an entire novel about war. Soldiers invade and
occupy a town while a woman knits. When invaders bring lemons, give
them lemonade. I don’t think I’ve read anything so enchanting about
peaceful resistance. This passage well sums up the story:
watched fascinated as the needles took up their familiar and soothing
dance through the wool, their clicking lost in the awful crescendo
coming from the door."
I’m not sure this collection quite
lived up to the billing in one of the quotes on the back flap: "Here,
you can glimpse writers that your friends will be recommending to you
in six or seven years’ time." But I can assure you that I will be
looking for more of Ms. Sharpe’s work.