Book Review

The Short Anthology: The Second Issue (edited by Will Martin & Kat Phan)

A collection of short fiction inspired by photography.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I have been given a free copy of this for review purposes1. That’s right, baybee: Pappa’s gettin’ free books!!!

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The Short Anthology is a relatively new regular publication whose central premise is simple and stamped on the front of every issue: “Fiction from Photography”2. In this, the second issue, we are given the photography of Alma Haser, followed by five pieces of fiction inspired by her work. Obviously, all the pieces contain certain themes and ideas in common (because they’re all inspired by the same source, he mansplains), but all of them are different, unexpected, takes on artwork that transport us all over the world and through all sorts of human experience. It is to be noted, before we look with more detail, that this small collection offers a consistently high standard of writing, which is a major achievement in itself: I don’t think I’ve ever read through an anthology (poetry or prose) where I haven’t come across at least one piece I felt had no business being published. Not so, here, but maybe that’s a benefit of the editorial decision to keep the anthology short…

Alma Haser’s photographs (some of which can be found on The Short Anthology‘s Instagram page) are all printed on photographic paper and stuck into the book on individual pages, which gives a physical weight and implicit importance to her work – these photographs are physical objects, which is not something one usually associates with the form. The eight pieces were all taken within (or on the edge of) a dense forest. We see trees growing to the horizon, we see a fresh stump evidencing deforestation (or sustainable wood farming, I don’t know), we see shacks and teepees and pipes and livestock, all surrounded by lush greens and deep browns. The photographs – and I think this is a real advantage of the printed medium – make great use of light, and when we see darkness and shadow it is truly mesmerising, deep and evocative, and one almost feels like the world as we know it may disappear were we to step into the trees. It is this that almost all of the fiction pieces choose to focus on – the darkness at the edge of the woods, the unknowability of nature…

The first fiction piece is ‘Fidelity’ by Susan Sanford Blades, and is about a woman spending time, alone, in a shack in the woods while she recovers from (or is being punished for[?]) what I believe was an abortion or a miscarriage. The woman’s husband was a serial adulterer, and while he leaves her in the woods she becomes the lover of a local woodsman, though the reader is left with some doubt as to whether he was either real or actually her husband. The story is dark and psychologically close – the protagonist/narratorial voice teeters on the edge of sleep, on the edge of sanity, banished as she is on the edge (or beyond it) of society. It’s an uncomfortable read, bodily, visceral, dark. I liked it.

Gary Budden‘s ‘Breakdown’ follows, and this piece can be split into two. The first half discusses the idea of memory, of the narrator becoming the conduit of anecdotes passed on from the men before him in his family. He retells, briefly, the narrative of his grandfather encountering hammerhead sharks off the coast of South Africa, of his uncle closing the Blackwall Tunnel3, and then introduces the central story he will then tell us, which is his father’s most important memory. When working as a long distance lorry driver, his father’s truck broke down in the middle of the Black Forest in Germany (which is where Haser’s photographs were shot) on a dark Winter night. The story, again, is short, is gothic, is relatively intense and – not for the last time in this collection – tinged with the supernatural. This is engaging and fun, and though a little homosocial, is an edgy and gripping read.

The third piece is less than two pages long, and written by Elizabeth Mikesch and May-Lan Tan, the latter being a (far more successful) graduate of my Creative Writing MA. The story is called ‘Sororal Pine’, and I would tentatively describe it as a prose poem. It is full of stark, nature images, a voice speaking about its sister and their shared experiences within the pines. Hair being braided and unbraided, swells and blisters, glass and jewels, meadow and honey, contraception and lakes. This is imagist prose (maybe, again, that’s just an opinion), and justifies deeper exploration than I’m giving here. That is why I’m deeming it poetry: there are layers of meaning here, the text is a series of images that open up and evoke emotions, places, bodies, thought. This is not a ‘story’ in that it is not a straightforward narrative, it is a piece about experience, about a sororal4 relationship, about the outdoors, about youth. Despite its length, it feels appropriate that this is the only collaborative piece in the anthology, because it is the most complex.

The final two stories are both longer, but both relatively straightforward in terms of structure. Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s ‘Tamarind’ is a slow-burning domestic tale about a woman discovering that the man who was arrested for raping her a decade ago has died in prison. The flush of youthful, forbidden, love is evoked in a touching manner, as Malika remembers sweet evenings with her boyfriend before one night she was attacked, horribly, where she had arranged to meet him. It was dark and she didn’t see the attacker, but everyone knew who she’d snuck out to see, so her boyfriend was sent to jail. Left pregnant and with a permanent facial scar caused by the rapist’s heavy wristwatch, Malika was banished from her hometown and eventually finds happiness with another man, a travelling merchant who – wait for it – always wears a heavy wristwatch. Other than the inevitable and heavy-wristwatched twist, this is an emotional and evocative exploration of pain and regret and the loss of youth, about societal judgements and the invalidity of personal experience when rallied against society. It’s good, playing with memory, particularly false/presumed memory.

The anthology closes with Anna Metcalfe‘s ‘Nemeral’, a piece about a young woman taking two small children on a walk in some woods and getting lost. This one, again, plays with notions of superstition and the supernatural – are there terrifying things hiding in the woods? Yes, there are, and they are Sophie’s memories of walking through the same trees when she was a child, with a father who unceremoniously abandoned her and her mother. Sophie is terrified of being temporarily responsible for the children, especially as night starts to fall and naive tales of witches and monsters slip into her mind. The claustrophobia of being in a dark wood at night is effortlessly captured, the return of childish fears to mask adult fears is excellently caught: Metcalfe’s writing is both mature and evocative of childhood, and manages to make a dense and emotional story out of a very slight narrative – this is far more than a story about some people being lost in a wood for a bit but getting home fine, this is all about growing into responsibility and using ones separation from childhood as a marker of maturity. This one’s great, and a perfect place to end the collection.

All in all, I very much enjoyed this issue of The Short Anthology and, as a premise – photography and a few stories – I like it. Too many regular publications like this tend to be overwhelming, 3 or 400 pages of 20ish pieces, some of which are always (at best) boring: with only 60 pages of prose a reader can be forgiving and an editor can be selective. I’ll be keeping my eyes open for Issue Three.

Thanks for the book!

For more information, check out The Short Anthology website.


1. As I have for – no exaggeration – about five or six more, all of which I’m going to try to plough through asap and hope the publishers/writers push attention my way. I’ve finally accepted that getting blog traffic by becoming involved in politics would take far more effort/energy than I have any interest in giving, and I still haven’t had the full day alone with my girlfriend’s powerful computer that I need to finish editing the two video interviews I filmed about four months ago. Traffic increases need to come from somewhere, and I need to warm back up into writing daily before I hammer out another piece on baldness for the HuffPo – the last one was so absurd it did me A LOT of good and I want/need to match that. Here’s a link if you haven’t read it: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/scott-manley-hadley/male-pattern-baldness_b_11585614.html 

2. Let’s add a self-indulgent link back to that piece I had published by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, where I took prose from music. The link, man, is this whole damn footnote. 

3. A road bridge that goes under the Thames to the East of Central London. Trying very hard not to presume all readers live in London, y’know. 

4. The fancy way of saying “sisterly”. I looked it up before using it in a sentence, in case I did it wrong.

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