Find talent in spades

18th January 2008 at 00:00
New and experienced student writers have produced insightful short stories that get down to the root of the matter, says Rosemary Ham.

The Mechanics' Institute Review, Issue 4, Autumn 2007. Edited by Gabriela Blandy, Jill McGivering, Jennifer Payne, Elizabeth Sarkany, James Vincent. MA Creative Writing, pound;7.99

The Mechanics' Institute Review - not the most enticing title, until you realise that the institute was the forerunner of Birkbeck College, part of the University of London. This collection is the product of its MA Creative Writing School and it contains stories written and edited by students, side by side with contributions from established writers such as Rose Tremain and David Foster Wallace.

It opens with the essay "The Enigmatic Art of Self-criticism" by Joyce Carol Oates. She argues that most writers have no capacity to view their own work objectively and may overestimate its genius, or like Kafka, believe it to be worthless and leave instructions for it to be burnt. This seems to invite us to delve into the lucky dip of 23 stories that follow and make our own assessment.

There is certainly a diversity of cosmopolitan stories here: Parselelo Kantai writes about Kenya; Nik Korpon sets his story in Texas; David Bezmozgis in Latvia; Rohan Kar evokes the streets of Jerusalem and there are more distant backdrops.

With the exception of "Paroxysm" by Lucy Roeber, a vivid evocation of Victorian sexual attitudes, the stories explore what it means to be alive now. Perhaps the dominant theme running through many of them is that of isolation - to be human is to be alone.

"The Exiles" by Danny Birchall focuses on a group of young people temporarily in London. Ultimately three of the four leave, but it is Danny the "coffee-coloured" Londoner who stays and yet seems to be the exile in his own country.

"Bus Ticket Revisited" by Zoe Fairbairns recounts two incidents on public transport - where strangers find themselves forced into conflict by chance, in the uneasy atmosphere of the times.

Hilary Wilce's "On Thursday we go to the Allotment" provides a rare gleam of hope. It is a subtle study of damaged human beings: when the narrator's marriage breaks down she finds herself reluctantly working at a centre for seriously disabled young people and there begins to repair her damaged life.

In the preface, the five editors explain with some seriousness how they discussed the stories chosen, sometimes asking the authors about their intentions and getting the reply: "with a worried look, 'I just wrote it'." This is, unfortunately, just the impression some of the stories leave.

Today, short stories sometimes have an understated quality, a reluctance to "overdo" adjectives, a horror of slipping into purple prose, which can leave the reader in the dark as to the writer's intentions. The first line of T Rawson's "The Red Shoes" is arresting: "In a cupboard, in a house a pair of discarded shoes rest ashamed ..; it is because they are too small."

The story continues in the same flat tone until the shoes are given away to a child they fit "and then the child takes another fairy cake and sits on the sofa between her mother and her brother." A small incident given this kind of treatment becomes even more insignificant. Some stories focus on the creation of a particular atmosphere, as this does, or draw individual portraits without the satisfying backbone of a sound structure.

In contrast, one of the most memorable stories is "My side of the River" by Samanthi Perera. At first it seems as if the narrator is calmly describing an ordinary London scene. Gradually details of the narrative strike us as odd - the repetition of the idea that mittens are impractical if you want to reach for your mobile phone in a hurry. We gradually absorb the chilling realisation of the narrator's intentions. This is a taut and satisfying story.

The same sense of a plot that is both surprising, and on reflection just what we expected, comes in the excellent final story "The Second Chance" by Jill McGivering. Here a young man, pardoned after 12 years for a murder he did not commit, is released. The sights and sounds of the Indian city into which he is dumped are almost palpable. We understand his sense of intoxicated confusion after the grey years in prison.

Biographical details of the writers appear at the end of this volume. It is fun to read the stories first and then check on your impressions to see whether you can distinguish the first-timers from the much-published old hands. You can't.

Who knows which of these authors may grow and develop into outstanding writers in the future? That is part of the excitement of this collection: every story is different, few disappoint. There is a wealth of interest here. Not so much a lucky dip - more a goldmine.

Rosemary Ham is a governor at the Royal Grammar School and the Alice Ottley School in Worcester.

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