The Book of Sheffield – Book Review

Northern publishers are rare. It’s tragic, but it’s true. I’m personally fortunate to live and work in the brilliant city of Manchester, where a small number of these rarities reside. One of these is the spirited and trailblazing Comma Press, a self-described ‘not-for-profit publishing initiative dedicated to promoting new writing, with an emphasis on the short story.’ Comma, as a proud advocate of northern publishing within the collective Northern Fiction Alliance, commits to ‘a spirit of risk-taking and challenging publishing, free of the commercial pressures on mainstream houses.’

Comma have been on my radar for a good while – not just because they’re a proud local gem, but because they’ve published such a fresh and dynamic set of short fiction anthologies since their creation back in 2002. These include Manchester Stories, Leeds Stories, and Liverpool Stories, each of which contain works of fiction – written by natives – which encapsulate the heart and soul of each city, their cultures, histories and people. Comma have also released a fabulous string of translated anthologies, such as The Book of Istanbul, The Book of Rio, The Book of Gaza, The Book of Tokyo and The Book of Tbilisi – which, as I’m sure you can guess, pursue the same premise wonderfully. Such publications are powerful not just in their unearthing of international heavyweight talent, but in their defiant representation of places, classes, cultures, faiths and voices which are so shamelessly ignored by the insular literary sphere. Comma really are changing the game, and it’s so, so exciting.

Comma are also, crucially, fiercely political – and this is what I love them for the most. Banthology, published in 2018, gathers together specially commissioned stories from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen – the seven Muslim-major countries President Trump signed an executive order against in 2017, effectively banning refugees fleeing these nations from seeking sanctuary in the United States. Though the order has since been protested against and blocked, it stands as an utterly repugnant aspect of American history, and Comma’s anthology is a ground-breaking work of political protest and empowerment. Iraq + 100, published in 2016, asks ten Iraqi writers to envisage what their country will look like in 2103 – exactly a century after the grotesque American- and British-led invasion at the beginning of this century. Similarly, Palestine + 100, published earlier this year, poses a question to twelve Palestinian writers: what might Palestine look like in 2048, exactly a century after the Nakba (or Palestinian Exodus), following the announcement of the independence of the state of Israel?

I’m yet to read these works, but there’s no doubting their boldness of vision, their political potency, and the sheer brilliance of Comma’s hopes to unshackle so many urgent voices through compelling and provocative narrative. Simply stunning.

Now, I was recently very fortunate to stumble across Comma’s lovely publicist Zoe over on Twitter, who sent me a handful of their publications for free in return for an honest review. (This really was very kind, and I have to emphasise how enormously grateful I am!) The first collection I delved in to was The Book of Sheffield: a collection of ten stories written by some of Sheffield’s most celebrated writers (Margaret Drabble and Helen Mort, most notably, included), each of which aims to encapsulate the multi-faceted wonder of that dynamic ‘Steel City’.

I read this book in little over a day – it was so consuming, and I was always so eager to read on and discover its varying styles of expression, its memories, illustrations and testimonies. Amidst a truly diverse and innovative collection of stories, what I feel most defined The Book of Sheffield was its vivid menagerie of characters: communist students, sequestered scrap metal dealers, discontented musicians – each lovingly authentic, each driven by some form of dreaming, pain or yearning. Even now, some days after reading, these characters remain fresh and indelible – I think of them with genuine and heartfelt care and concern.

Three or four stories stood out to me in particular. The first was ‘Like A Night Out in Sheffield’ by Johny Pitts, a writer, photographer and broadcast journalist who has received both the Decibel Penguin Prize and an ENAR (European Network Against Racism) award. Pitts’ story follows a (tragically relatable) young lad on a night out who, guided by his earnest and blossoming passion for international art-house cinema, drunkenly and unassumingly pursues a Julie Delpy lookalike throughout the city’s central clubs and bars. His love interest is a student, and almost unbearably more blasé, highbrow and middle-class than our endearing protagonist. ‘Like A Night Out In Sheffield’ is genuinely hilarious at times, and ultimately very charming, but also skillfully illuminates certain aspects of the city’s modern character: the impact of a growing student population, divisions of class and cultural capital, the arguable necessity of escapism for working-class youth trapped in a hometown which is both gorgeously and mind-numbingly familiar…

Another favourite from the collection was Gregory Norminton’s haunting and heart-breaking ‘How To Love What Dies’. This sharp tale opens with a professed fascination with traditional English ghost stories, setting the sepulchral tone for the story of an immigrant – disconnected from family and home, grieving the loss of his beloved wife – who stumbles across the tragic plight of a family of refugees seeking sanctuary in the rolling hills and brutalist concrete high-rises of his city. ‘Born On Sunday, Silent’ by Désirée Reynolds stands out as a powerful condemnation of the city’s complicity in British colonialism and in modern, subtle, violent racism. Reynolds’ writing is lusciously poetical, playful and image rich, and certainly emerges as a highlight of this anthology. Finally, I just have to mention ‘The Father Figure’ by Geoff Nicholson, which affected me on a very personal level. This peculiar story pursues a man who – phlegmatic, unshaken, and only mildly intrigued – repeatedly catches glimpses of his dead father passing him in public. While darkly comical and memorably bizarre, Nicholson’s contribution is terribly touching and highly original, and ranks undeniably amongst the best of this colourful collection.

Following this refreshing and pioneering read, I’m as keen as ever to dive right in to Comma’s next offering The Book of Newcastle, which I’ll be absolutely sure to review here for you, too. For now though, and as ever, I urge everyone to go and discover Comma Press, support them by (ideally, directly) purchasing some of their fabulous publications, and delve out further into the vast and ever-thriving array of northern and independent publishers, without which our treasured literary world would simply slip away into weariness, rot and ennui.

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