2084: Science Fiction Anthology from Unsung Stories

2084: Science Fiction Anthology from Unsung Stories

Unsung Stories launch Kickstarter for new dystopian short story anthology: 2084 

New stories from Christopher Priest, David Hutchinson, Lavie Tidhar, James Smythe, Jeff Noon, Anne Charnock and more.

As the events of 2017 reveal an ever more complex relationship between people and their governments, classic dystopian literature is proving its relevance once again. But as readers turn to classics, like Nineteen Eighty-Four, writers are also looking to our future, and what may lie there.

Unsung Stories have gathered eleven leading science fiction writers who have looked ahead to 2084, as Orwell did in 1948, for a new anthology – writers such as David Hutchinson, Christopher Priest, Lavie Tidhar, James Smythe, Jeff Noon and Anne Charnock, who are already famous for their visions of the near future.

Speaking about the anthology, George Sandison, Managing Editor at Unsung Stories, said, “We knew when we first started work on the anthology that the idea was timely, but the start of 2017 has really hammered home how important writing like this is.

“Dystopian fiction gives us a space in which to explore today’s fears, and the nightmares of society. For many people the events of the last eighteen months have brought those dark futures much closer, so it’s inevitable that we turn to literature to help us understand why.

“The ideas at work in 2084 range from the familiar to the fantastic, but all are bound by a current and relevant sense of what we could lose, what’s at stake. As with Orwell’s work, decades from now, we will be looking back to our stories, to better understand today.”

2084 will be published by Unsung Stories in July 2017 and features leading writers, including Christopher Priest, David Hutchinson, Lavie Tidhar, James Smythe, Anne Charnock and Jeff Noon.

In 1948 Orwell saw a world in flux, at risk of losing liberty so recently won. In response he wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four, a prophetic book. Now, in 2017,the themes are still with us.

This anthology of new short stories draws together leading science fiction writers – famous for their visions of our near future – and asks them to look into our future, to the year 2084.

Put humanity on trial as the oceans rise. Slip over borders in a Balkanised Europe. Tread the bizarre streets of cities ruled by memes. See the world through the eyes of drones. Say goodbye to your body as humanity merges with technology.

Warnings or prophesies? The path to Paradise or destruction? Will we be proud of what we have achieved, in 2084?

Our future unfolds before us.

Click here to find out more and support 2084.

Full list of contributors:

Desirina Boskovich

Anne Charnock (Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind and A Calculated Life)

Ian Hocking (Deja Vu)

Dave Hutchinson (The Fractured Europe Sequence)

Cassandra Khaw (Hammers on Bone)

Oliver Langmead (Dark Star and Metronome)

Jeff Noon (Vurt, Automated Alice, Pollen and more)

Christopher Priest (The Prestige, The Dream Archipelago, The Gradual and many more)

James Smythe (The Australia Trilogy, The Echo, The Explorer and more)

Lavie Tidhar (A Man Lies Dreaming, Osama and Central Station)

Aliya Whiteley (The Beauty and The Arrival Of Missives)

About the Publisher:

Unsung Stories publish literary and ambitious speculative fiction that defies expectation. Publishing stories from the varied worlds of genre fiction – science-fiction, fantasy, horror, and all the areas in-between.

Speak Gigantular: Hidden Cities and Lost Worlds

Speak Gigantular: Hidden Cities and Lost Worlds

Speak Gigantular by Irenosen Okojie: Jacaranda Books – Jhalak Prize Shortlist; Edge Hill University Short Story Prize Long List

If there is one thing which defines Irenosen Okijie’s treasure trove of short stories, at times both frustrating and intoxicating, it’s the madcap variety of her first lines. From the sublime (‘Sun-soaked yawns hover in Sal Island, Cape Verde’) to the ridiculous (‘She wanted her feet fucked’), they never fail to be intriguing. Like a box of exotic chocolates, some are sweet, some are sour and many contain a bitter darkness which permeates the narrative and cuts through the deceptive whimsy of Okojie’s prose. The dedication at the beginning of the book, ‘To all the misfits that dare to tilt worlds’, epitomises Okojie’s dextrous and occasionally disorientating use of language to challenge the status quo and keep her readers on their toes.

In stories such as Animal Parts and Nadine, Okojie’s prose is stunningly evocative. In this dark universe, innocence breeds violence and virginity inflames the animal sexuality of men. A woman’s mouth is ‘plump like ripe fruit and all the secrets it took with it into the crevices of winter’. A girl is hunted by men with smiles like ‘one white trap’. The same girl, traumatised by rape, has an ‘unnamed flower inside her […] a fist growing through blood’. This is the language of the fairy tale; richly symbolic and infused with the rhythms of the natural world. In many ways, it’s also where Okojie is at her strongest. Her prose, both stylistic and surreal, seems more suited to the fable than to the confines of realism.

In other stories, the many pop culture references sometimes distract from the semi-fantastical narratives. In Outtakes, Okojie’s lyrical description of a dreamy European odyssey, ‘The shrinking landscape became smaller in the side mirror, blown away by exhaust pipe breaths’, is juxtaposed sharply with the petty mundanity of the narrator: ‘I ate a sandwich, watched a couple of Family Guy episodes, sent a scathing text or two’. Rape is the dark centre of the deceptively light and sweet-toothed Fractures. However, the mysterious suitor of the main protagonist, who writes poetry ‘as though leaning into a storm’, is described in jarringly prosaic terms: ‘Wearing a sheepish expression, he stirred his cookies and cream flavoured Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.’ Although this serves to ground the reader in a particular time and place, it also punctuates the magical realism which makes Okojie’s writing so unique and otherworldly.

Speak Gigantular

In many ways Okojie’s collection of stories, so rooted in the monopoly board of streets that are instantly familiar, comprise a love letter to London. However, she resists the desire to romanticise a city which has reduced so many to haunted, lonely figures. This strange co-dependence, with all its connotations of vampiric and malevolent maternity, is described thus: ‘The city carried you like its infant child then bled you.’ Okojie excels when describing the almost pathological feelings of isolation and disconnection that often plague those living in cities. In Walk With Sleep, an imagining of the ghostly underground world those who commit suicide by tube might inhabit, one of the ‘jumpers’ experiences this sense of dislocation quite literally:

 At social gatherings he found himself holding his breath, watching and waiting for the body parts he couldn’t feel to appear at the opposite end of the room, his leg parting through the crowd towards him to claim ownership

At another point in the narrative, she describes the daily commute in almost apocalyptic terms; ‘ The sky snatched facial expressions, turning them grey…Their voices were locusts scratching his throat.’ In Why is Pepe Canary Yellow?, the chicken-suited, bank-robbing Messiah figure at the centre of the story literally uses his feelings of urban anonymity to disappear: ‘Embracing the feeling of painful invisibility, the way he had done many times in an unforgiving city, he vanished.’ In the same story, she describes how ‘the gutted consciences of the city were ghosts pressing their mouths against the keyholes.’ The sense of desolation is palpable.

At times, Okojie’s more disorientating sentences (‘The sound of pens rolling on the countertops was enough an accompaniment to the heavy breathing to jar stillborns crossing over to a separate horizon’) can be hard to unpick. Often Okojie’s simpler sentences are her most effective: ‘He was left with a father who chewed pine nuts relentlessly, barely spoke to him and looked at him as if he were nothing’ is a far more relatable concept than the idea of a Betty Boop t-shirt which spits sassy retorts to its owner (a flight of fancy in Walk With Sleep but one that typifies Okojie’s unconventional approach to reality). When it comes to narrative clarity, sometimes less is more.

However, Okojie’s more lyrical prose imbues her work with a layer of meaning which transcends the everyday. In Walk With Sleep, the main character may be long deceased and living in a strange subterranean purgatory but ‘the memory of he and Nuri carrying atlases and hopping over low fences remained, as if they were holding worlds and crossing them simultaneously.’ This beautiful description of the transient relationships between brother and sister, childhood and adulthood, life and death, ties the strings that bind this narrative together in one deft movement. That is Okojie’s greatest gift: using language to transport us to worlds both unknown and achingly familiar.

Click here to buy Irenosen Okojie’s Speak Gigantular directly from Jacaranda Books.

About the Publisher

Jacaranda Books is an independent publishing house based in London, specialising in adult fiction and non-fiction, including illustrated books, which cross linguistic, racial, gender and cultural boundaries. The authors represented by Jacaranda come from diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds, and offer writing that shines a light on issues affecting ethnic minorities, women, and young people, and those people from the Diaspora.

Review by Katie Witcombe

Katie Witcombe is a book-fiend and (very) occasional poet. She will quite happily read anything, including the backs of cereal boxes. Also a recent convert to long-distance running.

 

 

RofC Prize Rewards ‘Brilliant & Brave’ Fiction from the Small Presses

RofC Prize Rewards ‘Brilliant & Brave’ Fiction from the Small Presses

‘Small press fiction enables stories, characters and experimentation not found anywhere else in British publishing’ – Neil Griffiths, founder of the Republic of Consciousness Prize

Last night’s inaugural Republic of Consciousness Prize award ceremony was held in the iconic setting of the University of Westminster’s Fyvie Hall, in conjunction with The Contemporary Small Press.  

The prize’s founder Neil Griffiths, who set up and crowdfunded the prize to reward ‘brilliant and brave literary fiction’ being published by small presses ‘who are willing to take risks’ in the UK and Ireland, hosted the evening and spoke about the work of contemporary independent publishers.  He said, ‘I’ve been accused of trying to overthrow the established order of the literary establishment’, and while he readily acknowledged the high quality books that are being published by big publishers, he affirmed that in his opinion ‘the best fiction currently being published in the UK and Ireland is with the small presses.’  He elaborated on this, saying that ‘small press fiction enables stories, characters and experimentation not found anywhere else in British publishing.’  Griffiths explained the awarding process for this year’s prize, saying that there would be one ‘Winner Winner’ and two runners-up: ‘not second and third’.

Winner of the inaugural Republic of Consciousness Prize for fiction from the small presses was Counternarratives by John Keene, published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.  Unanimously voted the overall winner by all six judges, Counternarratives was considered a ‘once in  generation achievement for short form fiction’ and praised for the way that its ‘subject matter, formal inventiveness, multitude of voices, and seriousness of purpose transform a series of thematically linked stories into a complete work of art.’  Accepting the prize,  Jacques Testard from Fitzcarraldo confessed that ‘it’s not easy to publish this kind of fiction in the contemporary British climate’ – another example of the risk-taking innovation of small press publishers as testified by the quality of books selected for the prize.

Testard said: ‘We’re so thrilled that John Keene’s COUNTERNARRATIVES has been awarded the inaugural Republic of Consciousness Prize. First of all, it is a magnificent book and deserves the widest possible readership. The prize is so important for its focus on small presses — it’s tough, in this cultural climate, for risk-taking small presses to achieve visibility for our books. It’s also a unique prize on two other counts: it does not put limitations on what fiction can be in considering short stories, novels and translation together, unlike other prizes in Britain, and in fact it is the only prize which COUNTERNARRATIVES has been eligible for. Less important but remarkable nonetheless, it is a prize that rewards the publisher as well as the author — a welcome, refreshing reversal when many bigger prizes expect a financial contribution from a shortlisted publisher, big or small. Long may it continue.’

Counternarratives
Counternarratives by John Keene, Fitzcarraldo Editions.  Photograph by Sally-Shakti Willow

The two runners-up and winner were announced by The Guardian’s Literary Critic Nicholas Lezard who praised the ‘long and distinguished history of publishing by the small presses.’  The first runner-up to be declared was the novel Martin John by Anakana Schofield, published by And Other Stories about which the judges said, it ‘makes no judgment: it renders Martin John’s world with phenomenological honesty. It is a moral act.’  Joint runner-up was Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones, published by Tramp Press, described by the judges as a novel that ‘sets a new bar for fiction about a family. No other novel we’ve ever read portrays the lived experience of dying with such precision.’

A further category was created for Griffiths’ own criteria of Best First Novel, or ‘Surfeit of Multitudinous Energy’, awarded to writer Paul Stanbridge and publisher Galley Beggar Press for Paul’s novel, Forbidden Line.  Galley Beggar’s Sam Jordison collected the prize with Stanbridge.

Paul Stanbridge and Sam Jordison
Writer Paul Stanbridge and publisher Sam Jordison from Galley Beggar Press.  This photograph and the header image by Becky Danks

‘So much in the literary industry disadvantages small presses, and yet they are publishing the most interesting and innovative current fiction’ Dr Leigh Wilson, The Contemporary Small Press

The Contemporary Small Press’s Dr Leigh Wilson said, ‘We’re delighted to be involved in supporting the prize. So much in the literary industry disadvantages small presses, and yet they are publishing the most interesting and innovative current fiction.’  Organiser Neil Griffiths concluded: ‘I thought it was a wonderful evening. All the presses seemed mutually supportive, and I’m not sure that’s always the case at prize events. I think the key take-out is that small presses really appreciate the emotional support just as much as the chance to win some money’.

The prize was judged by: Sam Fisher of Burley Fisher Books in Hackney; Gary Perry at Foyles; Lyndsy Kirkman from Chapter One Books, Manchester; Gillian Robertson of Looking Glass books, Edinburgh, Marcus Wright and Neil Griffiths.

Congratulations to all the writers and publishers whose books were selected for the Republic of Consciousness Prize long- and short-lists.  

image (1)
The Contemporary Small Press’s Dr Leigh Wilson with prize founder Neil Griffiths.  Photograph by Georgina Colby

Article by Sally-Shakti Willow, Research Assistant for The Contemporary Small Press.

Photographs by Dr Georgina Colby, The Contemporary Small Press; Becky Danks reviewer for The Contemporary Small Press; Sally-Shakti Willow

The Glue Ponys

The Glue Ponys

The Glue Ponys by Chris Wilson: Tangerine Press, 2016 Republic of Consciousness Prize Long List* 

‘Larry was the first to wake up.  It was raining again and with the fever he couldn’t figure out if he was boiling or freezing.  His few remaining teeth were bouncing a tattoo off each other as his jaw played out the rhythm of the infection.’

These perfectly crafted short stories each give a fleeting glimpse into the lives of the transient outsiders whose lives are forged daily on America’s streets, in prisons, in run-down hotels and rusty old cars.  Heroin addiction is a uniting theme that runs like a thread through the highs and lows, the comedy and the tragedy, of each of these instant snapshots of the forgotten and unseen lives just beneath the surface of respectable city life.  Frequent details of places – street names, hotels, city quarters – serve to highlight not only the reality but also the close proximity of people whose existence is so often barely noticed by their parallel city-dwelling counterparts.  The sharing of common space between people whose lives are so vastly alien to one another calls into question the routine invisibility of the stories’ characters and those like them.

Wilson’s prose is measured, well-paced, with a sense of immediacy and brevity that makes every encounter sting with the sharp barb of honesty without sentiment.  These stories are not designed to evoke hand-wringing sympathy or provoke the reader to want to change the world.  They present important stories that Wilson is well-placed to tell, having lived on the streets and in prisons in the US for many years before returning to the UK and becoming drug and crime free in 2001.  The stories present the matter-of-fact realities, told through exceptional prose-fiction, of lives little glimpsed by most readers – each with its own dignity, desire, sadness and humour.

‘But there was another part of her, way down somewhere inside, that just wasn’t going to let her break and it held her and it lifted up her chin so that her eyes met with the eyes of the drivers coming down the freeway and she raised her right arm into the air with her fingers balled up in a fist and stuck her thumb straight up and into the heart of the blue morning sky.’

The Glue Ponys is a book worth reading for many reasons – both its style and its content are fresh and enriching.  In addition to the standard paperback edition, Tangerine Press have also produced a number of limited edition fine press copies of the book: 100 numbered collectors editions and 26 individually produced artwork copies with bespoke artworks by Chris Wilson (now sold out).

Click here to visit The Glue Ponys page on Tangerine Press.

About the Publisher:

Tangerine Press publishes poetry, prose and photography in handbound, limited edition fine press books.

Review by Sally-Shakti Willow

Sally-Shakti Willow is researching for a practice-based PhD in utopian poetics and experimental writing at the University of Westminster, where she also works as research assistant for the Contemporary Small Press.   The Unfinished Dream, an experimental collection of words and images by Sally-Shakti Willow and Joe Evans was published by Sad Press in October 2016.  @willowwriting

Distant Resistance

Distant Resistance
Despite the almost impossible brevity of each of these stories, it’s taken me a long time to read Diane Williams’ Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine partly due to my hesitation to start writing this review. The stories are unsettling.  An endorsement on the back cover tells us that ‘The uncanny has met its ideal delivery system’; another states that Williams’ work is ‘not for first reading but for periodic immersions in a world perfectly real but strange’.  Both of these statements encapsulate the strange otherness of these stories and their ability to bring us closer to ourselves through the oblique lens of familiar estrangement. But perhaps neither explicitly addresses the thing I personally found most troubling.
‘She had been lucky in love as she understood it. And that night – some progress to report. Something exciting afoot. She has a quarter hour more to live.’
For me, the upper-class voice and vocabulary created a character with whom I found it difficult to empathise and identify. I found the tone of Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond similarly problematic to assimilate. Both Williams and Bennett have created collections of discomfiting short stories with unsettlingly aloof upper-middle class narrators whose narration resists empathy and affect almost entirely. Williams, with her sharp and caustic brevity and her focus on an accumulation of unrelated episodes within a single ‘story’ seems to have perfected the style.
finefrontsmall
As a prolific reader, I’m used to fictions that engender empathy and identification with, and assimilation of, the narrator’s character as part of the unconscious process of reading that I’ve been practising since childhood. But Williams’ characters and narrators in this collection are not designed to be empathised with – they present disconcerting everyday experiences with which we might identify, in a way that’s designed to be distant and aloof, a way that prevents our easy assimilation of another life as our own and holds us at an uncomfortable distance. This is not a fiction that we can consume in colonial fashion, incorporating its riches as we gorge ourselves on the text. It holds us off, and that’s an unsettling experience in narrative fiction.
At the same time, the stories open us out onto ourselves. Asking us to sit with that twingeing irritation that Virginia Woolf described as located impossibly between the shoulder blades in An Unwritten Novel. Showing us the things that we find most troubling because we know they’re also part of ourselves but we can’t quite convince ourselves to acknowledge them, let alone reach through to alleviate them. So they sit there, troubling: resisting both assimilation and alleviation, just being there as a patch of rough and broken skin at the edges of our consciousness.
‘In a luncheonette that I took cover in, I overheard, “Yes, I do mind …” – this, while I was raising and re-arranging memories of many people’s personal details, tryst locales, endearments – faces, genitalia, like Jimmy T’s, or Lee’s, which I pine for.’
It’s a consummate skill to be able to produce this sort of resistance in a reader, when every literary convention dictates empathy and identification.
As global and national politics becomes increasingly defined by grotesque hyperbole and empty excess, literature is demonstrating its razor-edged potential for the subversive through its movement towards the understatement. Even Williams’ idiosyncratic crisp, upper-class vocabulary feels essential here: language like this enables us to explore thoughts of increasing subtlety and complexity, and to risk losing that suddenly feels chilling beyond measure.
The Poet
‘She carves with a sharply scalloped steel blade, makes slices across the top of a long, broad loaf of yeasted bread for the dog who begs and there’s a cat there, too.  
She holds the loaf against her breast and presses it up under her chin. But this is no violin! Won’t she sever her head?’
About the Publisher:
CB editions publishes short fiction, poetry, translations and other work which, as the Guardian noted, ‘might otherwise fall through the cracks between the big publishers’.
Review by Sally-Shakti Willow
Sally-Shakti Willow is researching for a practice-based PhD in utopian poetics and experimental writing at the University of Westminster, where she also works as research assistant for the Contemporary Small Press.  Sally’s poetry is included in the #NousSommesParis anthology from Eyewear Books; the experimental collection The Unfinished Dream by Sally-Shakti Willow and Joe Evans was published by Sad Press in October 2016.  @willowwriting
*The Contemporary Small Press is celebrating the first ever Republic of Consciousness Prize for small presses by reviewing a range of titles from the long- and short-lists throughout early 2017.  The Republic of Consciousness Prize was established by writer Neil Griffiths to support and reward adventurous new fiction published by small presses in the UK and Ireland.  The judges have selected some of the most exciting and innovative new fiction to highlight through their long- and short-lists, demonstrating the breadth and depth of high-quality literary fiction currently being published by small and independent presses.  The winner will be announced at an award-ceremony held in conjunction with the Contemporary Small Press at the University of Westminster in March.

Prelude to Oblivion

Prelude to Oblivion

Solar Bones by Mike McCormack: Tramp Press, 2016 – Republic of Consciousness Prize Short List*

‘The living and the dead stood shoulder to shoulder sharing a joke and a fag’

On All Souls’ Day when the dead are honoured, Marcus Conway is feeling pensive. A dependable family man and successful engineer, he is reflecting on what he has achieved so far. He also happens to be dead. Whilst pottering around the house he recalls past triumphs and set-backs, unaware that he is the lead character in his own ghost story. The reader is invited to step inside the mind of a recently deceased man as his life slowly flashes before his eyes.

 

Written entirely as a stream of consciousness by this central character, a unique insight is provided into his thoughts. A spiritual man who trained as a priest before choosing marriage and fatherhood, Marcus is nevertheless oblivious to his own death as he sits at the kitchen table. His familiar surroundings feel slightly off kilter for reasons he cannot quite put his finger on.

Set in Mayo in the West of Ireland during the economic crash of 2008, the precarious nature of global financial stability prompts Marcus to re-examine those certainties on which he has built his life. Current colossal shifts in world politics following the US election and Brexit mean that this context deeply resonates. Here is a man suddenly keenly aware of a vast, wider history unfolding as concepts seemingly far removed from individuals’ lives threaten to pull the rug from under them. In a familiarly unsettling time, such rapid insecurity is major enough to disturb Marcus on a personal level. He realises the huge responsibility citizens have in voting for change and ultimately the shared blame when things go wrong.

‘What did you expect electing such clowns to public office?’

solar-bones-cropped-cover-335x505

Solar Bones is a love letter to family life and an outstanding achievement by ground-breaking writer Mike McCormack. Experimental in style and almost entirely devoid of traditional punctuation, there are no chapters and not a single full stop. Far from being off-putting, this enables the internal monologue to flow very naturally. It is full of those supposedly mundane details which make up a life and are infused with meaning, like the cheese sandwich lovingly made just the way he likes it by his wife. Memories and observations topple over one another, from his artist daughter writing in her own blood on the walls of her exhibition to early childhood conversations with his father.

The reader is encouraged to invest emotionally by joining Marcus at pivotal moments in his life and so when it finally comes, the intense, brutal impact of his death feels like the loss of a friend. Comparisons to Joyce’s Ulysses are inevitable and deserved, as intimate minutiae fill a story that ultimately spans just one November day yet covers a lifetime through its internal monologue. Subtle and poetic, Solar Bones is an emotive reading experience that moved me to tears and a novel as beautiful as it is original.

‘Hand on my heart, I can say I died in that layby’

 

About the Publisher:

Tramp Press is a new, independent Irish publishing house committed to promoting unique literary voices and books of the highest quality. They aim to ‘encourage, support and maintain Ireland’s literary talent, and to enrich the lives of readers’.

Review by Becky Danks:

Becky is an avid reader, creative writer, dog lover, poet, and reviewer of books.  Among other things! She was recently shortlisted for the Verve Poetry Festival Prize 2017. Follow her on Twitter: @BeckyD123

*The Contemporary Small Press is celebrating the first ever Republic of Consciousness Prize for small presses by reviewing a range of titles from the long- and short-lists throughout early 2017.  The Republic of Consciousness Prize was established by writer Neil Griffiths to support and reward adventurous new fiction published by small presses in the UK and Ireland.  The judges have selected some of the most exciting and innovative new fiction to highlight through their long- and short-lists, demonstrating the breadth and depth of high-quality literary fiction currently being published by small and independent presses.  The winner will be announced at an award-ceremony held in conjunction with the Contemporary Small Press at the University of Westminster in March.

A Spoonful of Sinister

A Spoonful of Sinister

The Empress and the Cake by Linda Stift. Translated into English from the German by Jamie Bulloch: Peirene Press, 2016 – Republic of Consciousness Prize Long List*

‘It could never just be one more time.’

A seemingly innocent slice of cake lures a vulnerable young woman into a downward spiral of crime and enslavement. Bewildered at first, she cannot say no and succumbs disturbingly easily to the takeover of her life. Prepare to be held captive by the nightmarish unfolding of this lavish, Kafkaesque psychological thriller.

Set in present-day Vienna, the story opens with an invitation to a stranger’s apartment to share a dessert. The unnamed young woman, who is both the story’s heroine and narrator, feels compelled by social niceties to submit to this apparent act of kindness. Her older hostess, Frau Hohenembs, is a powerful social butterfly with a penchant for theft and cocaine. As she uses her status and connections to gain the young woman’s trust, the tension mounts into an unsettling sense of impending doom.

Joined by the downtrodden Ida, Frau H’s servant whose unconventional daily chores include polishing a pickled human head in a jar, they embark on a precarious law-breaking spree. Blowing up statues and stealing priceless objects from museums, their actions all play a part in the orchestration of the heroine’s inevitable ruin.

the-empress-and-the-cake

A parallel story about Empress Elizabeth of Austria runs alongside the main drama. This celebrated nineteenth century monarch felt stifled by the unrelenting etiquette of stately life. Craving admiration achievable only by obsessively watching her weight, she maintained her tiny figure through rumoured binge eating and fasting. Part contemporary suspense, part historical memoir, this riveting read reveals the pressure on women throughout history to conform to impossible ideals of beauty.

‘As decades passed the women got thinner and fitter.’

The distorted image the characters have of themselves is explored in fascinating detail. Trapped in a situation over which she has no power, the contemporary narrator finds solace in old habits, making herself sick using ostrich feathers in an ancient ritual copied from the Romans. This eating disorder, from whose grip she thought she had escaped fifteen years earlier, resurfaces as a sort of comfort blanket to cling to as she loses her job, her apartment and eventually her only friend.

Frau H eats little to remain impossibly slim while the overweight Ida somewhat inevitably stuffs herself with sugary treats at every opportunity, comfort eating to numb the misery of her circumstances. The twisted relationship between the three starkly different women is unified only by a mutual obsession with food as they struggle to satisfy their appetites amidst an oppressive atmosphere of guilt and punishment.

‘The grotesque face of my abnormality, which had lain dormant within me, resurfaced.’

Although mostly set in the present day, the story feels timeless, featuring extravagantly ornate settings and opulent lifestyles. Like the sumptuous cakes that appear throughout, this book is a thrilling treat to be devoured within a short space of time. A claustrophobic and gripping page-turner, it is an easy-to-read, scintillating little gem.

About the Publisher:

Peirene Press publishes contemporary European literature in translation. Great care is taken when choosing unique new works with the focus firmly on the merit of each book and the talent of the writer.

Review by Becky Danks:

Becky Danks is an avid reader, creative writer, dog lover, poet, and reviewer of books. Amongst other things! She was recently shortlisted for the Verve Poetry Festival Prize. Follow her on Twitter: @BeckyD123

 

*The Contemporary Small Press is celebrating the first ever Republic of Consciousness Prize for small presses by reviewing a range of titles from the long- and short-lists throughout early 2017.  The Republic of Consciousness Prize was established by writer Neil Griffiths to support and reward adventurous new fiction published by small presses in the UK and Ireland.  The judges have selected some of the most exciting and innovative new fiction to highlight through their long- and short-lists, demonstrating the breadth and depth of high-quality literary fiction currently being published by small and independent presses.  The winner will be announced at an award-ceremony held in conjunction with the Contemporary Small Press at the University of Westminster in March.