This collection of 26 stories is a little different to the average anthology. It weaves between fact and fiction, exploring those remote and lonely places on the periphery of human society. Each of the contributions is a substantial piece of writing – not one of them feels like a filler – and the combined effect of the authors’ different interpretations of the theme almost inevitably saturate the reader’s subconscious contemplations. It’s best read in segments, one or two tales at a time, allowing their intellectual heft and creative construction to settle between sessions. Otherwise, the effect could be a mite melancholic – and anyway, if you read this book too fast then you run the risk of losing the individual voices in the clamour of the crowd.
Exiles starts with an essay, a personal reflection on feelings of isolation abroad – a theme which is echoed throughout the anthology. It serves as a second introduction, really; describing the strangeness of life in post-Soviet eastern Europe but without pushing at any boundaries. It’s not the most attention-grabbing preamble, to be honest; the first fiction which follows, ‘Eating The Dream’ would have made a much more compelling opening salvo. This story deftly weaves an ancient mythological monster into the modern environment, with adroit observations on human society, like how people don’t care as much for their livers as they should (an important concern when you perceive people as ‘dinner’!)
One of the delights with this anthology is that it abruptly changes pace, style and setting with each new story. One moment you’re in the company of the supernatural: legends thought long dead which still stalk the modern world in isolated secrecy, and the next you’re grounded in cold, hard and bittersweet reality as a naive traveller comes an all too human cropper in a foreign land. Some of the writers seem to have drawn extensively on personal experience (at moments you could be accompanying a 20-something student on a mind-expanding gap year) to relate the overwhelming confusion and cultural misperceptions of a tired mind in a strange situation.
Some of the most entertaining stories are the fantastical ‘what if?’ tales. These are delightful moments where sadness and loneliness are transformed into wonder (as in We Are All Special Cases), or where the unreal is barely defined and hard to grasp. That’s the case with the surreal neo-noir of ‘Agent Ramiel Gets The Call’ where something semi-seen lurks in the psychological shadows.
But some of the most chilling tales are the real-world insights when a strange location and stressful circumstances reveal the gulf between couples or friends, when we find strangers where there should be someone familiar. There are also poignant moments where exiles reach out from their isolation to try to make contact with the rest of the world, chillingly less than successful in some cases…
Inevitably, a couple of the stories didn’t ring my bells – but this is an extensive anthology, not a whistlestop tour. Exiles allows many different voices to express their interpretation of the theme, and I’d say that I enjoyed at least 20 of them. I’ve read a few short story collections recently which seem to have finished before they’ve barely begun – containing just ten or a dozen stories. Exiles is an altogether more substantial offering, one offering an array of entertainment and thought-provoking concepts. It’s well edited, too, with very few of the typos and typesetting errors that abound in so many ebooks.
At the end of this anthology it’s worth going back to the beginning. The introduction speaks the ultimate truth: no matter how close you come in life to any other person, in truth we are all isolated. Alone. Exiles in our own existence.