Luke Williams, author of The Echo Chamber and much-loved tutor of Creative Writing at Birkbeck, University of London, has written the foreword to this year’s collection of new writing – short stories and novel extracts.
‘I am an ambitious writer,’ writes Jeanette Winterson in her memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, ‘I don’t see the point of being anything…if you have no ambition for it.’ What does Winterson mean by ambition? To ‘write about experience,’ she says, ‘and experiment.’ I think it’s worth pausing over Winterson’s ‘and’. For her, it’s not enough to simply write what one knows. She challenges writers to search for fresh and exuberant ways to tell stories, even as they draw on familiar experience. Every Birkbeck undergraduate in Creative Writing encounters Why Be Happy. And in this new anthology of fiction by students on the course, they have responded to Winterson’s challenge with imagination and style.
This inventive collection of short stories and novel extracts starts, quite literally, with a bang. ‘Had Harvey and I just been boxing? Or had we got into a fight on the street?…. I opened my eyes. There was a bloodstain on my pillow.’ Traces of blood appear here in Wolf Marloh’s strange and darkly comic exploration of identity and loss in contemporary New York, and in several of the other contributions. The allure of death haunts the children of Lindsey Jenkinson’s unexpectedly charming story of would-be murderers. Sharon Shaw’s ingeniously garrulous tale of family deception ends with blood. Blue Light Yokohama, a pitch-perfect slice of Japanese noir by Nicolás Obregón, not only stalks death but also brings present-day Tokyo moodily to life. In each of these fictions the darkness is balanced by linguistic adventurousness and precision. These qualities are shared by Darren Rackham’s farewell to 90s rave culture, which ends with a death foretold: ‘The bridge is ahead, lights twinkling so high up they look like stars…. I pull up my collar, start walking towards its giant frame.’
There are births and origins here too. In the course of Ruth Livingstone’s subtle and affecting letter from a father to his adopted son, the true origin of the boy’s birth is revealed. The question of beginnings runs through chapters from two striking novels-in-progress. Both Jacqueline Byrne’s and Nydia Hetherington’s extracts portray women attempting to piece together fragmented memories of their childhoods. Both also offer thrilling responses to the challenge of Winterson’s ‘and’. They each balance bravura storytelling with formal invention. What is more, each manages that most difficult of things: to dynamically enfold the process of writing into the tale itself. ‘My machine is not electronic,’ writes Hetherington’s narrator. ‘The L sticks, so I have to stop every now and then to lift it back into place. I have just done this three times. The keys look like soldiers awaiting my orders.’
Timothy Gibbon’s sophisticated and humorous coming of age narrative demonstrates what all of the contributions to this anthology share: quiet ambition, writing brimming with life and emotion. None more so than in Louisa Bello’s powerful short story ‘London Planes’ in which a solitary misanthrope, exploring his few confused relationships, manages at once to appall us and to break our hearts.
Here, then, is a magnificent collection of stories to consider and enjoy, each different, each demonstrating the kind of boldness and ambition that should find their authors many readers in the years to come.