BOOK REVIEW TIME
The Syllabus of Errors by Ashley Stokes
So it’s Valentines so let’s talk chick lit, hearts and flowers … no let’s not. Let’s really not. There might be a romantic thread … but this book is anything but that.
I met the author because of my association with Unthank Books who, as you know, published one of my stories in their Unthology 3 collection. I was intrigued by his writing in the same collection and put my hand up for a review copy of his new book. I knew very little about it but I devoured it, some parts in sizeable chunks and some in small nibbles, savouring each morsel. I wanted to talk about it here as you are all readers and writers and because it’s a great example of thought-provoking, intellectual fiction – this is what you can do with a short story. And some.
So this is my review …
In life there is no blueprint; no manifesto. We don’t come with instructions– if you do this, follow this rule, make this choice, live this way – you will be happy. You will not be afraid. You will never be disappointed. Instead we all foundering in the unknown, seeking order in the chaos, seeking identity though connection to others, seeking meaning for our very existence.
But even the eternal optimists know life comes with disappointment – we understand why we all champion the underdog because we are the underdog or we have been – and we know how to connect to that. We live lives often shaped by loss, by what ifs – by wondering what life would be, if only … and this book, this book is about that. Kind of.
The Syllabus of Errors (not the religious blueprint) is one of those collection you know is special from the first page and yet the reason for it being special changes with each story – it’s the characters, frighteningly real, disturbed, all flawed in one way or the other.
No, wait, it’s the way we find we’ve stepped into a world that feels familiar yet alien at the same time. It feels like Berlin, it looks like London. And Berlin is one of the motifs that recurs and connects.
No no, it’s the way these stories challenge the thinking – it’s so well researched – it’s revealing something I didn’t know about myself.
No no this is what it is: it’s because it’s a collection of short stories that work on their own, but are connected by a thread that in places is as delicate as some of the narrative, and yet it’s there and it works. Apart from the enduring sense of loss and obsession, the connection is more academic than that. It’s not a novel, but it’s more than a collection of short stories.
This is one of those books I’ve had to think about – I mean really think about in order to review it and I found myself picking the book up and reading some of the stories again, and each time thinking something slightly different, perhaps scratching off another layer. I like that. But it means I’ve deliberated more and taken a while to write this, not because I haven’t enjoyed it – absolutely not, but because when you come across something like this, you need to give it credence – you need to think up an intelligent response to it. Fail. I can’t compete with Stokes’s witty well considered illuminative narrative or thought-provoking story-telling. So let’s keep it simple – why do I love this erudite collection of stories? – and without grappling hopelessly for some kind of intelligent but elusive answer – I’ll tell you straight – because it’s imaginative, engaging and clever! Did I really say clever? Oh dear, I did. Well it is!
The Syllabus if Errors is aptly described by the author as a ‘sequence’ of stories, rather than a ‘collection’ The stories, or this is how I saw them, are connected by this idea that we all seek some form of idealism, we are all searching for something, whatever that might be. Identity perhaps? But it’s something that isn’t always definable and sometimes this very fact makes it somehow almost … haunting. The stories deal with obsession, loss and unravelling in the human state. A soldier with no face looking for his lost love in a city destroyed by war. And these things they seek can be tangible like the lost love or a place, a city, a political ideal. It felt to me as I was conveyed from one place to another, from one powerful narrative to another, all somehow linked –all the characters had something within them unresolved. In the words of the protagonist in the first story Island Gardens, they come with a feeling of ‘ahnen‘ which he says is a German word meaning ‘ a sense that something is wrong but not knowing its cause.’
But it’s more than that — it’s a sense of one kiss, one word that was never spoken– one part in a movie that was almost offered – one thing that never happened, but if it had – it might have changed everything. But look what happened instead. Or perhaps it is more – look what might happen. By this I mean it’s the links with the past, the way we have the contemporary alongside the historical gives the reader a sense of screwed or alternative history. For example, I enjoyed the way Stokes deals with war or perhaps I should say ‘between war’ that sets up questions about history, a sense of it repeating, or what if it happened somewhere else instead?
The stories are unnerving, haunting even, what permeates is a sense of loss, of never quite realising the dream. But it’s the language and the way these stories are crafted that stands out, that says ‘You should read this.’ But okay, it is Valentines and I promised no romance, I meant it – but there is a sense of romance – of the unrequited or the unable to say, and the stories come with a wry humorous edge. You’re left knowing the protagonists’ loss and connecting to their fears and disappointments.
So which stories were particular favourites of mine? Even that changes … but on first reading the ones with an enduring salience – Island Gardens – the first story, the first bite of this intriguing sandwich. I won’t use any spoilers but there was something about the world I was drawn into, the English teacher protagonist in London waiting for ‘V’ – the girl he met in Berlin, his mind full of what could have beens. He makes observations about the people around him but the unexpected ending deals with the consequences of that – when the line between reality and daydreaming is blurred.
The ‘romantic’ theme (if you can really call it that) is also explored in another favourite Abyssinia whose protagonist is an intelligent, alcoholic, love lorn academic that starts with him waking up in a hospital, still in an alcoholic haze and who pieces together his latest escapade. It deals with his hopes and his frustrations, the red tape of bureaucracy and while being in his head is slightly unnerving, a recurring sense in this collection, there is something to be said about looking out through someone else’s eyes and seeing their world – however skewed it might be.
Other favourites include Post-Leading Man whose out of work actor explores the idea of who we are and who we want to be – again with a blur between real and imagined: the hero and the anti-hero Other favourites are the worlds we’re drawn into in Ultima Thule and The First Suggestion of Night. I could go on. I won’t. Except perhaps to add that if you’re a fan of the experimental you’ll love A Short Story About A Short Film that uses film script as part of the story-telling.
I enjoyed the author’s take on post-modern living, with an almost unsettling sense of the twentieth century – shaped by Nazism, fascism and communism and in some way its influence not only on the thinking of the characters, but on arts and culture. There’s a lot to think about in these pages.
While you might well marvel at the learned nature of the work, a sense of some real deep thinking has gone into this collection (falls to the floor and says ‘I’m not worthy’), while Stokes asks the reader to consider new possibilities in the world he’s created leaves you wondering what has become of these characters beyond the final page, what I guarantee is you will be hooked, you will be drawn into the well-written narratives and you will be left with an enduring sense of the what might’ve been or the what could’ve been.
This is a great example of thought-provoking, unnerving and exciting literary fiction. It’s not for the faint-hearted. It’s not chick lit.
I hope this might encourage some of you to buy this book. It’s unusual, it’s literary and it will make you think!
I will have Ashley as an ‘In The Spotlight’ guest as well. His book is out today!