Book review: The Book of Newcastle
Published by Comma Press (2020)
When I think of Newcastle, I always picture the painting of Grey Street that hangs in my parents' house. The grey tones of this watercolour painting bring me an odd sense of comfort; having grown up in the north west of England, grey skies and rain are the norm. This grey, misty, wet weather has had a huge impact on my own feeling of comfort and what I consider to be 'cosy'. For me, hiding inside from the grey and rain with a duvet and a hot drink gives me my own feeling of Hygge.
I chose to review this series of short stories as I have familial links to Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. My Grandpa was a proud Geordie all his life and was always very pleased when people commented on his Geordie accent, even though he had moved away from Newcastle some thirty years (plus) before. As for me, I was born in North Tyneside and I still have family living in and around Newcastle, so the city makes up a small part of who I am.
In her introduction, Angela Readman discusses the two sides of Newcastle - the attractive and fun tourist side of the city and the grittier, everyday life for those who were born and have grown up there. She talks about the city's resilience throughout history and its ability to adapt to change. Her statement "Newcastle is stronger than the blows it has been dealt" rings true now more than ever while the UK is facing a particularly interesting point in its political history. She states that this collection of stories was put together to reflect the city and its ability to survive, and I agree wholeheartedly that they do just that. From the creative and headstrong protagonist, Gloria, in Julia Darling's Calling from Newcastle to Elle Castellan in Crista Ermiya's Duck Race, the characters in these stories show their resilience again and again in different ways. I admired these two characters for their resilience in particular - Gloria leads a quiet rebellion from her call centre office chair and Elle hosts her ex-boyfriend and his new (pregnant) wife for the weekend.
These stories have an overall melancholy feel (think Kafka and his woes), however, there’s also a bit of light relief. The sparse moments of hilarity or absurdity, like Billy breaking into his grumpy neighbour's house via a shared loft in Chrissie Glazebrook's Loftboy, allow you to escape from the sombre realities of life that are felt in each of these short stories. You feel both the sense of being trapped in the city, but also of being free from it when you’re running along the moor with Ekow in Degna Stone's Ekow on Town Moor. You experience the hustle and bustle of a busy street of neighbours in J. A. Mensah's Thunder Thursday on Pemberton Road, and you understand the reality of growing up and friendships growing apart in Jessica Andrew's Blood Brothers.
Nietzsche’s quote at the beginning of Mensah’s story: "Invisible threads are the strongest ties" seems particularly relevant for each of these stories. The characters you meet in this collection are linked together by the city and neighbourhoods that they call home. However, they are also linked by the emotions that run through the pages of this collection; you experience what the character is experiencing. Great writing has the ability to touch the reader, and the words of these authors definitely stay with you long after you’ve put the book down.
I would recommend this collection to those who have experienced Newcastle and to those who are yet to experience the city; these stories paint a vivid picture of a city and characters who have faced tough times but who have come out the other side. I enjoyed each of the stories in this collection for different reasons, but I enjoyed them all together. Their arrangement means that they sit together in perfect harmony. One story is not lost in another as they juxtapose one another just enough to create an autonomy for themselves. I liked these stories because they not only depict the everyday and the mundane, but they also contain a glimmer of hope. This tiny glimmer of hope gives you the feeling that the best is yet to come for this northern powerhouse and that not all hope is lost for the characters contained in this thoughtfully arranged collection of works.