I recently wrote a review of Comma Press’ brilliant anthology The Book of Sheffield, where I discussed Comma’s pioneering impact on northern, independent publishing. While I was kindly sent Sheffield for free in return for an honest review, I was also sent a copy of The Book of Newcastle, which is set for release on January 16th.
This collection, naturally, follows the same premise as many of their other anthologies, bringing together specially commissioned work from some of Newcastle’s brightest literary talents, including Jessica Andrews, Sean O’Brien and Angela Readman – the latter having also co-edited the collection with Zoe Turner. The Book of Newcastle brings together ten short stories which, while each capturing some distinctive aspect of the industrial powerhouse through their narratives and settings, also predominantly illustrate characters undergoing, or in search of, some form of reinvention.
These short works explore a broad variety of themes: identity, escapism, heartbreak, friendship, growth, grief, parenthood, mortality, class… The sheer, dynamic range of voices and visions on offer here is just remarkable, and so refreshing. It stands as yet another reminder – as timely as ever – that the UK’s London-centric publishing industry, and consequent systemic neglect of regional literary voices, truly deprives us all. I unwittingly tore through this collection in little over a day, which is undeniable testament to its vibrancy, virtuosity and command.
I should note that a few of the stories in this anthology really stood out for me personally. In ‘Thunder Thursday on Pemberton Grove’, J. A. Mensah utilises the unique phenomenon of flash-flooding in June 2012, and the region’s characteristic ‘Tyneside flats’ – pairs of single-storey flats within two-storey terraces – to explore a communal mish-mash of various people, histories, cultures, yearnings and connections. The result is just glorious. Another favourite – Margaret Wilkinson’s sombre and unsettling ‘The Here and Now’ – focuses on the spiritual and existential plight of a man confronting the immediacy of his own mortality. While at once a subtly moving – if not somewhat droll – exploration of love and earthly despair, Wilkinson’s piece also keenly confronts the lingering presence of Newcastle’s past – a seemingly unavoidable paradox for a city which has undergone such rapid recent change.
Though I’m yet to read Saltwater (I’ve picked it up and put it back down again countless times in dozens of bookshops since its release), Jessica Andrews’ contribution, ‘Blood Brothers’, was also a thoroughly memorable and moving contribution. In distinctively sweeping, visceral prose, Andrews follows the turbulent relationship between two childhood best friends, incorporating themes of identity, sisterhood and, perhaps most crucially, place: the narrator cannot possibly extricate this monumental relationship from the city of their birth. From their school, their dance class and chip shop, the local clubs and bars. She perfectly (and really quite beautifully) captures the wide-eyed boundlessness of youth – of your best friend, your comfort, and of your home town finally glinting with some sort of promise or excitement – as well as the gentle heartbreak and strange guilt of growing inevitably apart. It’s a very powerful read.
Finally, I absolutely adored Degna Stone’s ‘Ekow on Town Moor’, which I feel ended the anthology gorgeously. Here, Stone illustrates a son, ravaged by – and already grieving – the impending death of his Mum, who seeks solace and emotional escape in the relative peace of Town Moor. Stone’s encapsulation of the sheer weight and subtle deliration of loss is honestly palpable in her deeply emotive, engrossing expression. Her frank representation of the brutality of death and heartache is superb. It is one of the most stirring and deeply impressive short stories I’ve ever read. An absolute wonder and, as I already noted, a fantastic ending to a truly impassioned and formidable collection.
Keep an eye out for The Book of Newcastle, released January 16th!