Sunglasses and smart shoes. Clusters of people hovering in Rose Lane, leaning together in twos and threes, conspiratorial. A sentry in the bookshop doorway. Thankfully I knew the password – Kent Review – and was shepherded through silent, darkened aisles to a shrieking escalator that emerged on the top floor. Among the cardboard boxes and squeaky floor tiles of the Staff Only area, a bubble of noise and excitement. And a bar.
If getting to the launch of Kent Review felt a touch noir, the book itself proved even more evasive. After the contributors to the anthology posed for photographs, the evening began with an introduction from the editors. Dragan Todorovich spoke of a recent nightmare which proved horribly prescient: everything in the dream was going well, something beautiful was appearing, and at the last minute, the project he was involved in was cancelled. A phone call from the publishers in the Czech Republic that afternoon confirmed his subconscious suspicions – the copies of Kent Review, which were due to arrive in Canterbury in time for the launch, hadn’t made it onto the ship the night before. ‘We are promoting an invisible book’ Todorovich said, ‘but at least we have proof that it exists from the pages on display’.
Further proof came from the readers for the evening, introduced by Amy Sackville. Kent Review showcases work by current and recent Creative Writing postgrads. Two years in the making, the anthology features pieces by students still living and writing in the Canterbury area, and others who have moved on to work or study further afield. Several were on hand to share their work from the publication.
First to read was Ben Said Scott, whose short story ‘The Station Present’ was written during his studies in Paris, where the piece is set. A bilingual station announcer loses his job but keeps the reality of his situation from his young son, wrapping all communication in the distraction of spoken English. Moyra Tourlamain read extracts from her collection of poems The Book of Hours of Kitty Power, another ‘imaginary book’ featuring the voices of two women, suffused with religious imagery: water-walking, fishes at a picnic, crossed life-lines on a palm. The opening to Stephen Ireland’s novel Fin de Siecle was a joyous, drunken effusion set in mildly feverish pre-Millennium London. Drinking in Soho, a stranger’s number scribbled on a tube ticket, a housemate singing nonsense hymns: this was sharp, energetic prose. ‘What is the colour of your bread, my friend?’ I very much wanted to know the answer.
Caroline Greville’s novel Mantle of Shame was a very different offering. In the departure lounge of an airport, strangers meet and begin the search for a woman’s missing husband. Here were distance, distaste and otherness, and a profuse nosebleed on the descent to Heathrow. Mike Turner read the opening section from his multiple narrative The Warm Way, a cinematic pan across a beach on a day so hot the narrator ‘can hear the grass sweating’. An active, seeking voice, this short extract was full of the stuff of the environment, of dogs in the waves, shop windows, and a mysterious woman with a marked map. Inge Watson opted to have her extract read by ‘someone with a convincing Ulster accent’; her novel Page Ninety-Six dripped with the lard of an Ulster fry, meats jostling on a greasy plate, girls grilling the English newcomer who is clearly ‘in the wrong place’. Following neatly, Wendy Edwards’ humorous take on snobbery, inverted and otherwise, sent up the box-ticking, oyster-shucking middle class mothers of Tunbridge Wells. Despite the light-hearted tone and title – A Chicken Without Batteries – this extract from a novella hinted at potential malice in the scrutinising eyes of the protagonist’s son.
Joe McCarthy broke free of the reader’s podium to deliver an extract of his novel A Miraculous Race to Death. As McCarthy wandered, so his characters were set in motion: a figure glimpsed at a train station, the long bike ride to Aberdeen, blood in the cracked leather of a shoe and the enigma of unexplained anniversary. Christine Newman read the first page of her short story ‘Ticking Away’, a meditation on the isolated information of the text message. A woman prepares for the day ahead, measuring out her progress in beauty products, body weight and breakfast allowance. Hristina Hristova’s novel The Happiness Index continued the theme of contemporary complaints and chronic dissatisfaction, of hiked house prices and ‘organic aspirations’. In a world were happiness can be measured, why should four people in the ‘highest index country’ suddenly become depressed, and tip the scales?
Last to read was Gonzalo Ceron Garcia, who ‘felt like a priest’ at the lectern. Garcia’s extract from Forgetting Silence followed the protagonist on a bus ride with his mother, seeking places and people of the past damaged by the dictatorship in Chile. Here was poignant, humorous prose, full of clarity and detail; the empanada seller and his wares, the perceptions and presumptions of a young boy, gringos taking pictures of horses on the beach, Medusas lining the shore.
After the readings, wine and celebration. Despite the book’s absence, presales were available at the event. If only some of the works in progress were, too.
Kent Review 1, in its material form, is available to purchase from the Centre for Creative Writing and Blackwell’s bookshop on campus, priced £7.99.
The Reading Series will continue with visiting industry speakers and readings from CW postgrads. First up, the inimitable Tony Frazer, founder of Shearsman Books: Wednesday 21st May, 6pm, Keynes SCR.