The debut short story collection from newcomers Margo Collective concerns itself with “the concept of chains, both literal and metaphorical”, a theme that allows the collective’s editors considerable breadth to play with. So, much of Shyama Kasinathan’s “Epilogue”, which opens the collection, is narrated by a woman in a coma; Rajeev Chakrabati’s “Gargoyle” is about a terror suspect thrown in a nameless, faceless prison; Lesley Strachan’s “Identity” is about the miseries of a suffragette. It’s a decent unifying thread, but the real star of the show here are these well-chosen stories, which are often wonderfully off-beat and all the more powerful for it.
What’s stayed with me from Josh King’s “Incubus” is the image of a baby having a starfish dropped on it – a horrifying event which leaves her covered in blood, bruised from head to toe and with her lung almost collapsed. That baby becomes Polly, the story’s protagonist, who in an only slightly less unusual turn of events later finds herself in conversation with a demon (the “incubus” of the title), narrating extraordinary stories of Polly’s ancestors. King is a master of the luminous and strange, and his story is at once grimly funny and terribly sad – anchored in reality but with one foot in the uncanny. It also ends with a terrific image that I won’t spoil here: suffice to say it’s one of the best stories here.
Paul Brownsey’s “Liking, Lumping and the Fancy Woman”, about a small boy’s discovery that his neighbour Mr Scobie has been having an affair, is equally vivid if more grounded. Brownsey’s careful evocation of a particular post-war culture, along with his tight controlled of structure, lends the story its force. He’s also got a good eye for character: Mr Scobie, with his bald head, “looked like Scrooge in the film they’d seen at the pictures. His eyes never moved when they looked at you.” The first thing he asks Roddy, the boy in the story, is “Are you going to get beaten?” Roddy’s growing disgust at what he uncovers about the obscure world of adult is palpable.
Jennifer Hayashi Danns’s “Crawl” and Andy Warmington’s “The Sub-Regional (Interim) Unit Manager” both take a lightly speculative approach to the theme. Danns uses the format of a newspaper profile to describe an apparently altruistic Christian organisation whose actions are a whole lot less compassionate than they initially appear (to say any more would be to spoil the ending, which is dazzling and really, really dark). Warmington’s is about the GAL company, with its endless managerial vacancies and Hey GAL shops “that are not, on pain of litigation, to be described as shops”: there’s more than a hint of Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums in the descriptions of the Leonard family, who own the company, even if its model is clearly Apple. It’s one of the collection’s funniest stories, but Warmington also skilfully wrong-foots the reader, turning the ending into something rather poignant. I enjoyed it tremendously.
Where the stories occasionally work a little less well, it’s arguably because of their ambition. Ethel Maqeda’s “Jambanja”, about a mysterious message passed on to what appears to be an NGO worker in a township late one night, is highly atmospheric if perhaps a little too cryptic to be fully satisfying. It’s haunting, nevertheless, and gives a vivid picture of a world much bigger than the story. And Joey Simons’ “Amateurs, All of You”, told from the perspective of a defendant sitting in the dock during his own disastrous trial, is formally ambitious if sometimes a little hard to follow – the evocative, stream of consciousness narration doesn’t always lend itself particularly well to the flashbacks demanded by Simons’ story:
And it rolled out in front of you, the silence. Right there, wedged between the procurator with his head in his hands and the officer with the wee ball of chewing gum rolled between his sticky white fingers. The clerk poised over his computer wondering what to type. The judge with a face like granite and her mind on lunch.
That said, though, even those stories with flaws have plenty to commend them. And ultimately, what felt most impressive to me about Chains: Unheard Voices is how assured it is. True to their vision, the editors have pulled together a cohesive collection of excellent stories from some terrific writers, all of which reveal sides of humanity that are sometimes maligned or suppressed. Any literary fiction fan will find a lot to love here – and those who are looking for the next stars of short fiction should certainly watch Margo Collective closely.
If you want to buy Chains: Unheard Voices (and you should) then you’d be best to buy it from Margo Collective’s website here. It’s £8.99 and with its stark cover design, it’s a beautiful, striking collection to have on your shelves.
You can also follow Margo Collective on Twitter here.
Thanks to Margo Collective for providing a free copy of Chains: Unheard Voices for review.