Book Review | The Book of Newcastle Superb short stories from ‘The Toon'
THE AIM of Comma Press’s short-story series Reading the City is to convey the social, historical or political essence of a specific location and that’s certainly the case with The Book Of Newcastle.
Editors Zoe Turner and Angela Readman bring together 10 authors who offer unique vignettes of The Toon. Some are born-and-bred Geordies, others are outsiders who found their way in and fell for its charm.
The tales vary in voice, tone and texture. But they all feature characters whose lives are inextricably embedded within the landscape of the city, from the dusty lofts of the iconic Tyneside flats to the dew-soaked ryegrass on the town moor.
Julia Darling’s tragicomic Calling From Newcastle opens the collection with Gloria, an 18-stone call-centre agent who dreams up new lives for herself from inside her cubicle between roundabouts on the edge of a ring road. “I’m in the desert,” she tells one caller, “From where I am sitting, I can see a long line of camels.”
Duck Race by Crista Ermiya tells the story of a poet coming to terms with her ex-lover’s new relationship by finding comfort in the green spaces of the city, “navigating her loss beneath great lime and oak and poplar” when a slip in the Ouseburn reminds her that home is where you make it.
Harry Box laments the ban on smoking in public libraries in TABS by Sean O’Brien, and Chrissie Glazebrook’s Loft Boy sends adventurous young Billy Boot into the communal loft of Skinner Terrace — “low-rent homes for the terminally hopeless” — where he discovers much more than he bargained for.
Other perspectives on the city are more surreal, complex and intensely private, as in Angela Readman’s hauntingly beautiful Magpies, in which a single working mother grieves the loss of a son, childhood and innocence to hard streets and the cawing of magpies. “A sorrow of mothers” becomes the collective noun for women who cast out bread for the birds, hoping for a return that will never come.
These short works explore a multitude of themes and solitude, heartbreak, friendship, identity, space and togetherness are just a few of the motifs. They find full expression in JA Mensah’s Thunder Thursday On Pemberton Grove.
On June 28 2012, a real-life super-cell thunderstorm devastated much of the north-east and the small community of Pemberton Grove must overcome their suspicions of each other if they’re to weather the storm which rushes through the veins of the city, revealing “unseen connections as it entered people’s homes in a deluge of dirty water.” It’s a neat split-narrative tale of finding unexpected relief in closeness and community.
This is a stunning collection of vibrant, dynamic regional voices who populate their stories with characters who defy erasure, who instead adapt to a world in constant flux and who ultimately discover in themselves a twin ballast of hope and resilience that point to a reinvention full of promise. All the while, the city is a witness to their griefs, joys and sorrows.
Highly recommended reading for Geordies and outsiders alike.
Published by Comma Press, £9.99.