Chinese Whisperings: The Red Book is a collection of ten interwoven short stories by emerging writers from across the English-speaking world, a conceptual anthology created by Australian writer Jodi Cleghorn and Scottish writer Paul Anderson. This collection, the first in a series of anthologies to be published under the Chinese Whisperings imprint, sees each successive writer taking a minor character from the preceding story and telling their story as the major character in the next. Unlike other anthologies, which might be unified by theme or year of writing, Chinese Whisperings: The Red Book has been created in a sequential fashion, the stories taking place in the same American University town, each writer often referencing events from the preceding stories to tie the ten stories together.
The setting does not limit the subject matter or theme of each piece and all the stories are individual enough to be read in isolation; yet together they become more than a sum of the parts. Often while working through the collection I found myself sucked into a particular story to then discover just how it how it links in to the larger framework. Rather than kicking you out of the present story, the effect is one of cohesion, as the connections are revealed in an organic and natural way that is increasingly satisfying the further you wade into The Red Book’s narratives. All this drives the reader forward through the collection.
Characters and storylines are surprisingly varied considering the structural and character constraints the editors and writers set themselves, moving from the perspective of an aid worker to that of a homeless man via a sleep deprived librarian and a violent street thug. The ten characters’ stories move between the internalised, such as Miranda’s, where she considers how she has come to be trapped in the clutches of a mysterious illness or Simon’s, who in the midst of sleep deprivation begins to hallucinate, and more externalised plots concerning private detectives, violent criminals and corrupt organisations.
While none of the stories feel out of place within the collection, the most successful tales, for this reader at least, are those that are the most intimate. ‘Mercurial’ is an intense, claustrophobic piece that sees Miranda trapped as much by her actions as by the sickness that assails her. ‘Not Myself’ has an hallucinatory quality that captures the wanderings of a sleep deprived mind while showing the causes can often be both more mundane and more exciting than one might think. ‘Heartache’ is a moving tale of loss, with the main character seeking reasons for actions he cannot explain.
When the stories delve into the realm of genre fiction, they still retain some of that intimacy, which helps create the strong unity of the collection. The final tale, ‘One in the Chamber,’ provides a complimentary bookend to opener ‘Mercurial,’ its use of noirish detective fiction creating a contrasting sense of claustrophobia to that of the opening tale. ‘Not My Name’ and ‘Discovery’ expand the narrative beyond the American university town setting into other continents while bonds both thematic and character driven pull the stories back into the fictional gravity well of the setting and the collection as a whole. It is this breadth of genre and style within the collection that ensures there is something for everyone within its (currently virtual) covers.
What is perhaps most striking about The Red Book is the fact that, on finishing the final tale, it leaves the reader with a desire to return to the beginning and experience the various threads of plot and character again, certain that a second read will unlock deeper complexities of connection. In fact, this is encouraged by the editors with the creation of The Red Book Reversed. Whichever direction you end up tackling these stories, the Red Book comes highly recommended as an interesting concept that manages to live up to its promise.
The Red Book is available here as an eBook via Paypal buttons in a whole host of currencies, so wherever you are in the world it’s easy to snag a copy. A paperback edition will be available March 2010. It’s also worth following CW on twitter @ChineseWhisAnth to get all the latest news and be in with a chance of winning one of the limited edition Red Book Reversed ebooks. In this digital only edition the stories are presented in reverse order, with each main character slinking into the background of subsequent stories creating all sorts of interesting new continuities.
In the interests of full disclosure, I will be writing for Chinese Whisperings – The Jade Book, due later this year. This review was note drafted before I was invited to join the CW crew. The enjoyment I got from reading this first collection (in two sittings, driven on by desire to see just how the next tale fits into the overall continuity) was a major factor in my jumping at the chance to take part in the next.