Filler content with voices

And the last of my stash of reviews that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #42:-

BOOK OF VOICES edited by MICHAEL BUTSCHER

Flame Books pb, 202pp,                                            

As Michael Butscher explains in his Introduction, the African nation of Sierra Leone is only now emerging from a devastating period of civil unrest dating back to the 1990s. At such times funding for literature is not a priority, but all the same freedom of expression is an essential part of any people’s identity, a means by which they define themselves and the ideals to which they aspire, hence this anthology, profits from which are to be donated to the Sierra Leone branch of writers’ organisation PEN.

Book of Voices casts its net wide, with an international line up of contributors and a diversity of approaches, but perhaps not surprisingly the fourteen stories between its covers are dominated by twin themes of political repression and the need to write, to tell the stories that reveal who we are.

The opening story, Catherynne M. Valente’s ‘The Psalm of the Second Body’, harks back to the very origins of language and literature itself, presenting the reader with a vivid fusion of prose and poetry that throws new light on the ancient story of Gilgamesh and Enkidu, one of the seminal fictions of mankind. Gregory Norminton compounds this initial good impression with ‘The Soul Surgeons’, a piece of cod-Elizabethan prose that reveals the true story behind the death of Kit Marlow, along the way raising vital questions about censorship and the impulse to write, all wrapped up in a character driven tale and totally credible. ‘Electric Fence’ by Gary Quinn is somewhat less substantial, but deftly written all the same with pitch perfect characterisation, a snapshot of one single moment along the road to tyranny. Marc Paoletti’s ‘Polenta’ is a beautifully realised evocation of the world of Italian immigrants in New York of the 1930s, capturing the plight of a young son charged with looking after his mother, the story effortlessly engaging the emotions through its recognition and celebration of values that are universal. ‘Dasi’ by Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar is no less moving but in a different way, a harrowing account of the life of a young woman widowed in Brahmin society, someone who to all intents and purposes is defined by her wifely status and becomes a non-person when this is taken from her, the story checking in on her at various ages and showing how she is brutalised by outwardly charitable treatment and the regime of psychological cruelty at back of it

Neil Grimmett’s ‘Shining the Light’ is set in the Greek islands and has a couple from England visiting to discover a family secret from many years back, a story that holds the attention all the way, with a strong sense of place and deft characterisation, though I did feel it somewhat fizzled out in the final stretch. ‘Sally Moore’ by Yolande Sorores is a subtle and clever examination of the will to write, with a successful novelist realising how much of her career is owed to what she, at the time, considered unfair treatment from a teacher. ‘Home’ by Moshe Bennarach is the longest piece in the book and also one of the weakest, a sub-Borges account of the search for a, possibly, mythic text, one of dubious provenance and which appears to be different on every occasion that it is described, and the narrative itself suffers from similar shortcomings, with little in the way of clarity or real direction, informed by a self-referential delight that left this reader unwilling to engage with it in any but the most superficial manner. Andrew Hook’s ‘Beyond Each Blue Horizon’ tells the story of a student coming to realise that the other members of the household in which he lives are disappearing, an oblique and slightly earnest attempt to address problems such as Argentina’s Disappeared, but with little new to add. ‘The Age of Universal Deceit’ by Patrick Neate is another piece in which brittle cleverness has to serve in place of real insight, political satire masquerading as an article on a new movement in the arts. The title ‘No Story At All’ kind of speaks for itself, and I’m afraid Scott Kelly’s portentous short went right over my head.

Having reached a low after a good start, Book of Voices now rallies to end with three of the strongest stories in the collection. Jeffrey Ford’s deliciously tongue in cheek ‘Boatman’s Holiday’ brings alive the figure of Charon and his quest for relief from the age old task of ferrying the dead, the story filled with invention that simply doesn’t let up, an enviable lightness of touch in dealing with serious matters and wry humour. Yema, the heroine of ‘On the Road to Godiva’ by Brian James, the only writer from Sierra Leone to feature in the collection, is sent off to a private school where it’s hoped her rebellious ways will be cured, but takes a wrong turn and ends up at the stronghold of the demons who are tearing her country apart. With its string of macabre events, a magic realist sense of the outré and everyday overlapping, and some genuinely nasty bad things, this could easily pass for a superior horror story, but James gives it a political dimension which, at one and the same time, endows the story with a worth that belies its roots in folklore and sends it spiralling dangerously close to preaching, a condition James just about stops short of. ‘The Flame’ by Tanith Lee is an inspirational account of the writer in chains and celebration of the indomitable spirit that will not be silenced. It’s a fitting note on which to end, bringing us full circle and serving up a timely reminder of what this book is really all about.

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