Contemporary short fiction, poetry and more

Review: The Syllabus of Errors by Ashley Stokes, Part 1

Paperback: 206 pages

Publisher: Unthank Books (14 Feb 2013)

Language: English

ISBN-10: 095642239X

ISBN-13: 978-0956422392

Price: GBP 12



 I requested a review copy of Ashley Stokes’ first collection of short stories in 2012, before it was published.  I have not written a review of it before, because it is taking me a long time to decide what I think about it, which is a good thing. 

 I have still not made up my mind about the collection as a body, and so I have decided to review individual stories.   I’m starting with the last story in the book, which is entitled ‘I Remember Nothing’. 

 Like many of Stokes’ short stories, it is a long one by contemporary standards – nearly 30 pages.  It is a complicated story and, given the timescale of the narrative and the amount of development that the protagonist undergoes, I would suggest that it might be considered to be a novella.  It would also, in my opinion, make a good film script. 

 The story opens, like ‘The Great Gatsby’ (a book on which Ashley Stokes and I have diametrically opposing views – he loves it and I hate it) with some historical reminiscence which is, by contemporary standards (the second time I’ve used that phrase) arguably irrelevant and mis-directing to the reader. 

 The protagonist is an intellectual 15-year old boy.  Like many intellectual teenage boys, he finds himself the victim of the school bully.  This is just one strand of a multi-threaded story.  The protagonist is neither a goodie or a baddie – he is a human being with limited resources, filled with self-doubt, and just trying to do the best he can.  This is very contemporary. 

 The narrative mode is first person unreliable, past tense.  The protagonist is only referred to by his real name nearly at the end, and turns out to be called Foxton.  There is quite a lot of direct speech, mostly conversations between the Foxton and either his amazingly enlightened history teacher, or the elderly and mysterious Mr E.  Foxton is Mr E’s paper-boy.  Foxton and Mr E talk about Foxton’s history lessons, which are concerned with Nazi Germany.   It is left to the reader to decide what he/she thinks about Mr E’s opinions. 

 The setting for the story is elaborately developed, which is another aspect of it which makes it feel like a novella rather than a short.  This development takes place mostly inside Foxton’s head.  He devises an alternative set of names for the places and things in his surroundings.  For example, he calls the school bus Kindertransport 151.  This did make me empathise with Foxton.  It is the kind of thing my contemporaries and I used to do at school as part of the struggle to escape boredom.  Foxton’s implied yearning for the conflict and complexity of Weimar Germany contrasts with the backdrop of the 1980s, which is convincingly-created. 

Given the story’s themes of survival, teenage confusion, and the colossal shadow cast by World War Two, I would be very interested to hear what Ashley Stokes thinks of my forthcoming novella, ‘Escape Kit’.


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