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Northern Lines — A review of Test Signal: Northern Anthology of New Writing, ed. by Nathan Connolly

Test Signal: Northern Anthology of New Writing
Nathan Connolly (editor)
Co-published by Dead Ink and Bloomsbury Publishing
£16.99
ISBN: 9781526630919

‘Unlike anthologies you have read before, this one will not hold together as a whole united by a single theme or cause. Instead, our goal here is variety,’ writes Nathan Connolly in his introduction to Test Signal, an exciting collection of fiction and non-fiction by writers based in the North of England. With this in mind, it seems a bit daft to review the anthology — with its twenty-two unique pieces — as a whole. Test Signal is collectively a rich showcase of talent.

The collection is bookended by pieces that explore our place in the natural world. Andrew Michael Hurley’s ‘Clavicle Wood’ is a beautiful opener and he writes of the (nicknamed) wood:

‘it became something of a sanctuary, a place where the long weeks of lockdown could be charted… by the progression of floral changes: snowdrops to celandine to bluebells to the swirl of downy cottonwood seeds let loose on a warm afternoon in May, making it seem as it had snowed’.

It’s an incredibly immersive piece that reflects on the importance of nature, and what it means when our sanctuary is threatened by developers. In contrast, the threat is less man-made, more sea-made in ‘God Hates Withernsea’, by Adam Farrer. The image of doomed chalets and houses clinging to the crumbling coast is offset by the writer’s almost comical pleading with his stubborn parents to just sell up and ‘Move inland!’, in another fascinating piece about belonging to places that might soon disappear, due to governmental indifference and the passage of time.

In addition to receding woods and coastlines, there are pieces about movement and migration, family, friendship, animals and the monsters within us, romantic relationships, ghosting and ghosts, influencers and online worlds, and stories about growing up, growing old and growing apart.

Melissa Wan’s ‘Birdie in the Big Smoke’, Jenna Isherwood’s ‘Transplant’ and Sara Sherwood’s ‘How to Find Yourself’ explore themes of movement and growth. Wan’s story is like a series of micros, each section individually titled, that makes wonderful use of the present tense to build tension and chart Birdie’s frustrations as she navigates an unfamiliar city and the friendships made along the way. Sherwood’s piece is particularly inventive and moving, with its use of lists and the second person to convey her protagonist’s desire to fit in and progress up the career ladder, while worrying that she’s ‘just another girl whose voice melted away into a regionless blur’.

Sisters and female friendship take centre stage in Crista Ermiya’s ‘The Mary House’, Amy Stewart’s ‘Making Monsters’ and Jane Claire Bradley’s ‘We’re Made of Electricity’. Ermiya’s depiction of complex family dynamics and use of atmosphere will make you think twice about stepping into abandoned nineteenth-century convents. She writes, ‘It felt wrong, even more wrong than the destroyed chapel… Here, in the dark, the decay was atmospheric pressure’, and by the end of the piece you will be thoroughly creeped out.

When two girls in their school go missing, Bradley’s main characters embark on a different journey. ‘Before we know about them, we are satisfyingly feral, roaming the estate until dark’, recalls the narrator. Later, after discovering drink, drugs, petty theft, body piercings and even dabbling in the occult, she says, ‘That’s enough to make this weird. The proximity feels sinister and contaminating’. This is a compelling meditation on innocence and its loss.

Speaking of compelling, Tricia Cresswell’s ‘Not My Usual Practice’ and Sharon Telfer’s ‘7.43’ both play with perspective and keep you guessing till the very end. ‘I do not think that I am mad, not now. I can see a body, and the tide is turning… I press 999,’ says Cresswell’s ex-Doctor protagonist, who discovers a dead body and turns out to hold plenty of secrets herself in this dark narrative.

‘It’s not until some days later that I realise the woman on the bridge must be a ghost’, begins ‘7.43’, which sets Telfer’s story as a contender for the piece with the best opening line. The rest of this intriguing story does not disappoint, as we try and work out what is and isn’t real, in this inventively structured piece.

J. A. Mensah’s ‘Doorstep Pictures’, Kit Fan’s ‘Angel of the North’ and Rebecca Hill’s ‘And They Say It’s Where Your Heart Is’ feature characters dealing with change and the impact of external forces on community and family. ‘It would be like having the pictures on your doorstep, the lass from the council had said that. She wasn’t from Cambois… She had the air of the outside about her’, notes Mensah’s protagonist, whose children have long since flown the nest and is the owner of a car she barely drives. After her visceral reaction to a new visitor from the council, what follows is a subtle and touching exploration of geographical and personal identity. Likewise, Hill’s story is an understated depiction of a man and a woman demolishing parts of their old home while forced to confront long buried grief. ‘For a moment she stills, one hand half-reaching towards the frame a few inches below Jack’s name… It’s hard for him not to stare too, not to go down that same track and press his fingers to the wood’.

In addition to such rich subject matter and themes, there is tremendous range of voice. ‘The Possible Parable of Caroline Carlton’ by Robert Williams is an increasingly surreal, yet relatable depiction of the lengths to which one person goes in order to maintain some peace and solitude in her life, and arguably the funniest story in the collection. Matt Wesolowski’s ‘Wabbit’ and Désirée Reynolds’s ‘Cuckoo’ both make brilliant use of accent and dialect to bring their flawed but unforgettable characters to life. Finally, ‘Asylum Decision’ by Tawseef Khan uses the epistolary form and governmental language to devastating effect, as a dramatic story of a vulnerable migrant is slowly revealed and then draws to its rivetingly inevitable conclusion.

‘Our goal here is variety,’ writes Nathan Connolly, and this collection certainly achieves that goal. Test Signal is a diverse anthology, where every story hits the back of the net, every time.

Reviewer: Farhana Khalique

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The Word Factory is a national UK organisation for short story excellence. We’re run by writers, not for profit but for passion. The Word Factory is for everyone who loves stories, bringing brilliant writers and readers together.

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Farhana Khalique

Farhana Khalique

Farhana Khalique is a writer, voiceover artist and teacher from south-west London. You can find Farhana online @HanaKhalique and farhanakhalique.com

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