Review: The Obsidian Poplar and other stories

Will Spencer 16 May 2014

Written by students from Oxford and Cambridge, The Obsidian Poplar is an anthology of short stories which ‘deal with themes of alienation, isolation and loss’. Alternatively grave, poignant and amusing, it is perhaps at its best when not attempting to mix these disparate elements.

The book opens with Max Gallien’s ‘Tuesday’, the tale of a day in the life of a banker after he discovers his wife’s infidelity. The underlying humour is not quite dry enough to give it any lasting impact, though the ultimate sense of farce is a satisfying conclusion. ‘Logic Lane’ and ‘Legacy’, written by Jacob Wedderburn-Day and A. K. Arling respectively, are likewise unexceptional. The former, however, which tells of a resolutely logical professor who becomes inexplicably entranced by his student, is an affecting insight into the workings of the academic mind.

Laura O’Driscoll’s ‘An Encounter’, which begins with the drunken misunderstanding of Tristan accidentally stumbling into Iz’s house, morphs into a sombre reflection on the past demons which govern their two lives. The compelling dialogue between the characters replaces the slightly forced tone of the spoken exchanges in the previous three stories. In the centrepiece which gives it title to the collection, Naomi Rebis plays with the Greek myth commonly known as ‘The Rape of Persephone’, recasting Zeus, god-in-chief and Persephone’s father, as her predatory rapist. Themes of guilt, female subjugation and hope in the depths of despair render this ostensibly ambitious reworking unexpectedly powerful, even resonating in the modern world.

The collection takes a darker turn with L. P. Lee’s ‘Reflections in a Mechanical Eye’. The stepmother of the protagonist, Sujin, runs a plastic surgery clinic in which operations are performed by an enslaved robot with an idealised feminine appearance. Lee creates a chilling dystopia, culminating in a haunting dénouement. ‘Folks’, by Madeline Kerr, may be the book’s highlight. The circumstances surrounding a Mennonite marriage initially appear to be somewhat tragic, but are imbued with a delightfully macabre absurdity, which grows increasingly comical.

Fergus Morgan’s ‘A Masterful Performance’ serves as a stirring portrayal of loneliness, relating the story of a man who takes on the façade of the mysterious loner for his own amusement, before wondering of what his existence genuinely consists. In ‘Aspects in the Flower Garden’, Paddy Scopes introduces us to a group of people on neighbouring benches, each of whom have suffered a recent calamity; their differing reactions are eye-opening.

Alice Ahearn’s ‘The Ballroom’ is a moving finale, conveying the last days of a dancing and piano enthusiast suffering from dementia, the disjunction between her inward recollections of the past and the outward reality becoming increasingly evident. The story’s underlying gravitas is a fitting culmination to a collection which largely matures with each new tale.