A hodge-podge of short fiction by young English writers, gathered “from every corner of the country” to show what Bell and Gay call “a picture of England at the beginning of the twenty-first century.”
The editors rightly point to contemporary English fiction’s London bias; it seems that “a novel set in, say, Bradford or Exeter is seen as necessarily provincial and limited.” Their remedy is to provide 24 stories that vividly evoke their settings—from Suffolk to York, Bradford to Brighton, Coventry to Cornwall. But the collection’s diversity is strictly regional; the characters and the subject matter are so similar that the pieces can blur into each other. In David Almond’s “Bleeding Statues,” daft South Shields women get enthused about a Jesus statue that they think is moving, while the detached young narrator knows better. In Joolz Denby’s “The Quick and the Dead 2,” a group of women discuss a murder while a detached young narrator eavesdrops. In Peter Ho Davies’s “Coventry,” a heavy-drinking working-class man gets befriended by an educated but—yes—detached young narrator. The authors’ extreme youth (a glance at the contributors’ list yields birth dates as recent as 1977) may be the cause of such uniformity; it is almost certainly the cause of many of the stories’ contrived use of phonetically rendered dialogue. The clunkiness of a phrase like “Zee ahl right yu reckon?” (in Harland Miller’s “Castle Early”) reveals an almost embarrassing eagerness to be influenced by Irvine Welsh. Yet there's a solid handful of standouts here, including Davies’s aforementioned “Coventry”; Kevin Sampson’s “Black Diamond,” narrated by a foggy-headed Birkendhead barfly; and Julie Burchill’s “By the Sea We Flourish,” depicting a misguided trip to Brighton.
Quite interesting for sociological reasons, and for impressions of these many locations, but ultimately the collection inadvertently paints small-city England as an unvaried and rather grim place.