Review: Underwords: The Hidden City

I am very much not the right reader for Underwords: The Hidden City (although neither, apparently, were the nine people who have rated it on Goodreads).

The collection’s the result of a short story competition, the London Short Story Prize: winning and highly commended stories from what must have been the 2004 competition are included in the volume alongside work by more established names like Nicola Barker and Andrea Levy. All of the stories are on the theme of The Hidden City.

Except: are they? For a start, the collection’s definition of “short story” is very much the litfic one. A woman in a museum decides whether or not to help a refugee. Another woman witnesses a racist incident on a bus. A couple’s trip to see a world-class pianist play on stage helps them negotiate their stale marriage. These are largely plotless stories whose denouements turn on a single decision, on individual personal epiphany. They are, I suppose, stories that try to grapple with the mundane and make it revelatory.

Which is a fine aim, as far as it goes. Two things, though: none of these stories felt truly revelatory to me; none of them felt they really had anything original to say. Secondly, and maybe less subjectively, I’m not convinced that this kind of story, polished, personal, mimetic in the way that the literary establishment currently still values, is capable of taking on the vast multiplicity of a city like London. Its contradictions, its complexities, its vitality. A city is never mundane, no matter the state of the lives that make it up; that’s kind of the point. It is simply too big to represent mimetically, as these stories all attempt to do.

None of these stories are really about London; and as for calling it The Hidden City…well, I’m struggling to see how the “hidden” part is relevant. Underwords is, basically, a failure: not of the individual writers, but of the judges’ imaginations. There are so many other ways to describe the world than what’s showcased here.

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