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The Book of Voices

edited by Michael Butscher

(in support of Sierra Leone PEN; Flame Books, £8, March 2005; ISBN 095459455-X.)

Review by Nick Jackson

cover scanThis collection of 14 stories has been well-chosen to convey the book's message: that storytelling has the power to guide thought and opinion and to influence culture. From the darkly fantastic to the bleakly urban, from sharply satirical to gently poignant, the pieces are diverse and original. They are also collectively powerful; themes and images are developed and echoed in successive stories.

The collection opens with Catherynne M. Valente's evocative 'Psalm of the Second Body' which takes the ancient Epic of Gilgamesh inscribed on clay tablets and elaborates on the ability of language and poetry to awaken the spirit. The power of the written word is explored further in Gregory Norminton's 'The Soul Surgeons', a description of the persecution of playwrights in Elizabethan England for religious and political motives. Told through the eyes of a scribe who sets down the confessions of a tortured dramatist accused of heresy, Norminton lays bare the dilemma of those who are compelled to participate in the brutality of suppression, in precise and visceral imagery. The imagery of suppression and torture recurs in 'Electric Fence', Gary Quinn's surreal black comedy, concerning the horrors of Irish partition. The fate of the livestock in the story is a bitter comment on man's inhumanity and the ending has a chilling supernatural quality.

A much gentler pace and tone is set by Marc Paoletti in his story, 'Polenta', which depicts the suffering of dementia. Paoletti sets the scene and develops his characters with careful detail. There is great warmth and insight in this story, which encapsulates the cultural alienation of Italian immigrants in the US. The wonderful thing about this collection is its scope and diversity at the same time as the themes of the stories seem to merge. Paoletti's story of loss is echoed by Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar's 'Dasi', an enigmatic portrayal of the subjugation of women in Hindi religion. Through a series of minutely observed episodes in the lives of different women, all widows, Rajakumar reveals their shared state of dependence and humiliation outside of the institution of marriage. Neil Grimmett explores another facet of loss in the complex story of a Cretan woman's search for her lost family. The sense of mourning and the poignancy of her search is rather diluted by the unsympathetic narrator but the unravelling of truths is well-handled and the imagery is strong and effective.

In 'Sally Moore', Yolanda Sorores focuses more closely on the act of writing and what this means for the writer. The story describes a young author's increasing success, gradually overcoming the fear of writing instilled in her by a school teacher. The writer's quest is redefined in 'Home' by Moshe Bennaroch, who takes up many of the earlier themes of this collection: the search for origins, the sense of alienation and indefinable loss. A journalist searches obsessively for a mysterious book he remembers from his childhood - the text of which is different for each reader. The Borgesian enigma is rather muddied by a rambling narrative, but the author successfully captures the journalist's despair on realising that the 'home' of the title is not to be found.

Political manipulation and forms of oppression are explored in work by Andrew Hook and Patrick Neate. In 'Beyond Each Blue Horizon', Hook conveys a claustrophobic vision of a country gripped by political censorship on the eve of an election. The atmosphere of tension and paranoia builds as the regime's opponents are gradually picked off: their fate symbolised by the husks of clothes and possessions they leave behind. Neate adopts a broad-brush approach to the political arena in 'The Age of Universal Deceit', a humorous satire on the manipulation of language and morality for political and commercial ends. Neate invents a future in which an intellectual reflects back on our present world and comments on our political and moral decay to devastating effect. From the sphere of international politics we are brought down to earth by Scott Kelly's 'No Story At All', which delves deeply into the essence of alienation through a bar conversation between a small-town drunk and a recently arrived drifter. Kelly subtly brings out the inexplicable fear underlying the veneer of casual interactions.

Jeffrey Ford's 'Boatman's Holiday', which employs macabre fantasy to evoke a vision of Hell, initially struck me as out of place in this anthology. The author leaves it late to develop his theme: that the human spirit is capable of transcending bodily torment. The power of the imagination is elaborated further in Brian James' story, 'On the Road to Godiva', a blending of traditional West African myths and alternative reality. A young girl's desire to escape from the misery of her poverty-stricken homeland to the USA is slowly broken down through a series of dream-like episodes leading to a realisation of her power to effect change by staying and striving for a better world. The power of the writer's spirit and the transcendent qualities of the imagination are the defining elements of Tanith Lee's story 'The Flame' which, reiterating many of the collection's themes and images, provides a compelling conclusion to the anthology. The image of the flame occurs as the ultimate symbol of the writer's vocation.

The Book of Voices is more than the sum of its parts. The authors conspire to lead us on a journey to fascinating corners of the world and reveal surprising truths in persuasive and richly imaginative tongues. Ambitious in its intention, it is a collection which deserves to be widely read and appreciated.

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