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The Mechanics Institute Review Issue 5

Various Authors

 
"On our wedding night, in the honeymoon suite of the hotel where the ceremony took place, Arjun and I sat side by side on a burgundy-coloured sofa. I felt nervous. Not the confident poised woman I thought I would magically transform into the instant I became a wife. To my surprise a group of Arjun's friends appeared at the door. Soon the men lay sprawled on the sofas, their feet up on the coffee tables. Empty beer bottles and discarded peanut shells littered the carpet. Their wives in sequined saris stood in a huddle, gawking at me."

Reviewed by Carol Reid

A strong sense of place and of being out of place pervades many of the pieces included here.

The mean streets of Trenton, New Jersey provide the backdrop for the opening story, Stealing Jimmy Dean, by Cynthia Medford Langley. The narrator is a truant semi-delinquent teenaged girl who spends a day joyriding with her even more delinquent boyfriends and, through a drunken mishap, a fifty year old black man in a trilby hat.

Jon Elsom's Commission is told through the eyes of an expatriate Englishman selling door to door in a Western Australia suburb. His ineptness as a blackmailer proves equal to his failure as a salesman.

A Year of Not Calling by Thomas Jerome Seabrook deals with a divorced man's solitude in what was the marital weekend cottage during the mourning period of a dead marriage, written with an engaging, simple elegance.

Boozehounds by Philip Makatrewicz explores the strange case of Polish brothers, Patrik and Jacek, now called Paddy and Jack, the latter of whom is turning into a dog. This is a squalid but entertaining tale.

The landscape of madness makes for a harrowing story in Gul Y. Davis's Beneath the Fire. This stream of consciousness piece puts the reader inside the psyche of a woman who has been burned in a fire, the circumstances of which become horribly clear as the narrative plays out.

The protagonist of Thea Bennett's Under White Light attempts to cast off her old life while on extended holiday on a Greek Island, but the threads of Destiny prove difficult to unravel.

In Ridicule, Pippa Griffin presents an uncomfortable journey into her narrator's sexual obsession with a film of a young figure skater and the ensuing debasement of his life and relationships.

Hot Steppah by J.D. Keith is a noisy, jumbled story, in which a fundamentalist congregation offers both worldly and spiritual salvation to a young gangster hiding from the law.

A Gap of Sky by Anna Hope follows protagonist Ellie's quest for printer ink as she recovers from a whopping hangover. The ink remains just out of reach but she experiences a sort of epiphany in a New Age shop.

A Home for Bobby MacIntosh is a standout in this collection. Anupama Kumari Gohel's beautifully written, wistful story of the end of an arranged marriage is full of authentic human feeling and ordinary struggle. Lovely and poignant.

Melissa de Villiers's The Confidence Trick is a sad, disturbing story of a young pregnant woman used as a drug mule into South Africa, with predictably dangerous consequences.

Another outstanding selection is With His Own Two Hands by Albert Garcia. This history of a young man's relationship with his Mexican-American grandfather is told with honesty, humanity and an evolving self-awareness which makes for a satisfying and memorable read.

Air and Sea and Salt by Matthew Weait is one of the more surprising pieces in this collection. It begins as a tale of a cruise and a fading marriage but, with the unexpected addition of pirates, becomes something else entirely- a story of self-discovery and loyalty with more than a touch of "noir".

Paul Martin's story, Goose, is a melancholy and somewhat perplexing short piece which deals with grief, atonement and man's thoughtless brutality toward creatures perceived as "other".

In contrast, the brutality in Olga Knezevic's In Seka's Country is deliberate and overwhelming. This is a nightmarish story of human trafficking and a woman who makes her living from this reprehensible trade. The revelation that she too was brutalized as a child does little to redeem the situation or elicit sympathy for the character.

12 Hours in Lemans by Josh Raymond is a gentle story of two lonely, bereft people - a young British man and a Quebecoise woman - meeting and spending a night together.

Finally, All or Nothing by Alison Huntingdon, a remarkable character study set literally on the London streets and the banks of the Thames. Very moody, very damp, a satisfying conclusion to an intriguing collection of new work.

These seventeen pieces more than hold their own against the stories by the established authors. Toby Litt's Paddy and Henry is told mostly through conversation between the two rather affected title characters, who discuss the pros and cons of adultery, divorce and analog versus digital. Potassium Man by Sarah Salway examines the psyche of a socially inept man and his journey toward self re-invention. Last Night of the by Ali Smith makes some use of the ingenuity of Scheherazade, but here a man and woman heading home after a holiday tell unfinished stories, perhaps to keep their relationship alive.

I wasn't certain what the connection was of these authors to the Birkbeck program and their contributions didn't particularly enhance the collection, which is worth a read, with or without them.

Carol Reid is an amateur short story writer and an assistant fiction editor for Sotto Voce magazine.

Carol's other Short Reviews: "Crimini: The Bitter Lemon Book of Italian Crime Fiction"   
"Passport to Crime: The Finest Mystery Stories from International Writers"

Richard Matheson "Button, Button: Uncanny Stories"

Andrew Porter "The Theory of Light and Matter"

Fran Friel "Mama's Boy"

Mathias B. Freese "Down to a Sunless Sea"

Publisher: MA Creative Writing, Birkbeck University of London.

Publication Date: Autumn 2008

Paperback/Hardback? Paperback

First collection?: No,  Issue 5.

Series bio:From the Introduction by Susan Elderkin - "Birkbeck is an unusual college in that all its classes are held in the evenings. This means that the students it attracts are like Leunig’s blob man. They are people who already have proper lives, with jobs and families. They are people who are all too aware that there are more reliable ways of earning a living, more enjoyable ways of spending their time. People who should and do know better; but who nevertheless choose to close the door on everything else for long swathes of time and wrestle with their inner book – because the urge to write is strong, unfathomable and unrelenting."

Authors: Cynthia Medford Langley; Jon Elsom; Thomas Jerome Seabrook;
Philip Makatrewicz; Gul Y. Davis; Thea Bennett; Pippa Griffin;
J.D.Keith; Anna Hope; Toby Litt; Anupama Kumari Gohel; Sarah Salway;
Melissa De Villiers; Albert Garcia; Matthew Weait; Paul Martin; Ali Smith; Olja Knezevic; Josh Raymond; Alison Huntington.


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The Publisher's Website: Birkbeck, University of London 

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If you liked this book you might also like....

Ian Daley (ed) "Bonne Route"

Sarah Salway "Leading the Dance"

Ali Smith "The First Person and Other Stories"

What other reviewers thought:

The Independent

The Short Story

Goodreads