The Obsidian Poplar and Other Stories, an anthology of ten works, half of which are written by Oxford students and the other half by students from Cambridge, is a pleasantly eclectic collection of works, covering love, loss, and all that runs between the two. The stories are impressive for the breadth of experiences which they convey with great concision, and great things can be expected of the authors in the future.
Reflection in a Mechanical Eye is perhaps the most powerful of the works. Living in an environment in which rumours of ‘selfie surgery’ are flying thick and fast, LP Lee’s almost dystopian image of a world of celebrity look-alikes feels disturbingly real. Coming from a family with a background in cosmetic surgery, I find something distinctly unnerving in the words “the formula for beauty was so precise these days.” Not content with a nightmarish prediction of self-modification, Lee brings in an automaton as the ultimate ‘after’ picture: a perfect model and assistant, yet one whom the protagonist’s step-mother abuses. I must admit however that I would have enjoyed seeing Reflection in a Mechanical Eye given further space to play out as it just begins to edge into very interesting Blade Runner territory as it questions human chauvinism in its brilliant conclusion.
The Obsidian Poplar itself is another well-wrought tale. Naomi Rebis takes the myth of Persephone’s abduction and turns it upon its head. Through the lens of The Obsidian Poplar, the mythic and distant is linked to the very real and very disturbing present condition of women who face the threat of rape, and reminds the reader of the remaining presence of the patriarchy in our discourse and society. Her Persephone embodies the general condition whilst maintaining a personal significance and our sympathy throughout, using the veil of myth to force the reader to face up to difficult facts.
Many of the stories complement each other perfectly. Fergus Morgan’s A Masterful Performance, a tale of a man who falls into his own act – the enigmatic loner – evokes Heart of Darkness’ line “We live as we dream – alone.” The growing sense of closure, of finality, and of wasted chances ties it in to Logic Lane, by Jacob Wedderburn-Day. His picturesque image of Oxford is well-punctuated by the tale of a lovelorn academic. Max Gallien’s Tuesday touches upon love as well, though more impishly, mocking the ‘hero’ Ottokar, and his inept attempts at escaping his relationship via fantastical and clearly fool-hardy propositions.
The feelings of helplessness recur throughout the collection, and mortality is often around the corner. Legacy (A K Arling) bemoans reckless materialism: Robin, arriving at his late father’s house, finds that his brother desires only a broken compass. With his marriage distant at best and entirely lacking in sentimentality, Robin can only realise that, though his brother is far poorer than him, he is far happier. Aspects in the Flower Garden, a series of vignettes by Paddy Scopes, has a wandering child with a lost photograph tie together four strangers – each suffering, yet each unable to reach out and find another human. The final piece in the anthology, Alice Ahearn’s The Ballroom, recreates dementia through the eyes of the sufferer as well as their family. It is a painfully poignant read, and one that truly reminds us to appreciate the moment.
Yet there is hope in the anthology too. Madeline Kerr’s memories of Ontario gives Folks a real solidity, and even in the face of the deaths which her protagonist describes matter-of-factly, life persists and hope grows. An Encounter, Laura O’Driscoll’s story, features a Tristram and an Isolde, yet rather than destroying each other, their meeting offers the hope of change for better. Well-crafted and moving, The Obsidian Poplar and Other Stories may somewhat leave a reader despairing of humanity, but in the face of this it leaves a glimmer of hope.