Marking time in some style;Arts;Books

10th September 1999 at 01:00
Gaye Hicyilmaz on a charismatic mix of millennial tales.

CENTURIES OF STORIES: New stories for a new millennium. Edited by Wendy Cooling. Collins pound;14.99.

Books are more than the sum of their contents, and hardbacks particularly so. Some books have personality, but too many don't. And we'd like something special for pound;14.99, whether or not there is a new millennium on the way. My expectations, therefore, were high. This volume has a lot to live up to, even before you've scanned the list of 20 contributing authors. I won't pick favourites but it's the sort of list you'd hope this highly respected editor would choose.

My copy arrived last week and from the first opening of the envelope to the last rereading just now, I've not been disappointed. It's a lovely book to handle and that matters, particularly for younger readers. Books anticipating a long working life need to be up to it. This one is a good size; it opens properly and is generously and clearly laid out and printed. The cover illustration is fascinating and now that I've read the book, I'm enjoying the significance of its detail even more.

Four stylistically distinctive artists have created black and white illustrations for each story and since, sadly, they're neither named on the title page nor given an "About the..." entry like the writers, I'd like to commend the important contributions of David Wyatt, Mark Robertson, Sarah Young and Tim Stevens.

If you want to mark the millennium with a book, how do you do it? Wendy Cooling and company have found a happy medium. There's one story for each century. The first, Michael Morpurgo's In Ancient Time, which is about memories of the Crucifixion, establishes the tone. This is a book both for and about Judaic-Christian Western cultures. It includes a few stories set in other civilisations such as Bernard Ashley's The Mask, and The Wall by Vivian French, but both these are essentially told by outside observers. Nevertheless, this feels right within the conceptual terms of the book. There are readers who know nothing of Golgotha, there are others (like me) who know but interpret differently, and still more who both know and believe. And all of us must surely mark 2000AD.

Happily, these tales deal both in huge events of recognised historical importance, such as the French Revolution, which provides the setting for Ad le Geras's Toinette, and in tiny, imagined episodes, such as Gillian Cross's smelly 9th-century monastic romp, Brother Alfred's Feet. Mary Hoffman's 6th-century contribution refers to a slate found in Cornwall in 1998 and intriguingly inscribed: "Artognou, father of a descendant of Coll, has made this". It is from such materials that histories and myths are woven. Here, they lie easily side by side, and the reader is not uncomfortable.

Some stories made me think, which is always more fun than purely being informed. I've never read The Travels of Dr John Mandeville - Geraldine McCaughrean's Why Would I Lie? has ensured that I will.

This is a leavened mix: humour, romance, science fiction and fairy tale. All, however, is not sweetness and light. Jacqueline Wilson's The Daughter is a bitter tale of pointless harm done to a young girl - and we mutter under our breath, "nothing changes". Malorie Blackman is unwavering in her represen-tation of what is unacceptable.

In any collection we have our "pets", both loves and hates, and that is true for me here. It is Melvin Burgess's Odin's Day that defines the dilemma presented by such a millennial project. Alone among the stories it feels of its time. Its eye is direct, not ribboning back over the centuries, trying to bind all up. For that is what this collection, with intent, must do. And does.

There is a coherence. Its overview is benign, almost Utopian, in the belief in inevitable progress. Maybe we daren't do anything else. So most stories mark the passage of time, the passing of less "civilised" ways into others. The young protagonists are often isolated by their sturdy recognition of these moments of change and they suffer because of it. Only Vili, in Odin's Day, couldn't care less about the past or the future. He only has eyes for his adored father who will ... but no! I won't spoil it, or admit to favourites.

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