It is two years since publication of Losing It, a volume of short stories by different authors on the theme of losing your virginity. Now in this new anthology Keith Gray has challenged another set of fine writers for young people to tackle that other taboo subject, death; or to be more precise, what might happen after death. Gray has succeeded in producing another clever and original collection that perfectly demonstrates the appeal of the short story.
Julie Bertagna opens the collection with a tale of young love seemingly cut tragically short in a car crash but soaring to exhilarating and unexpected new life. Jonathan Stroud’s story follows and is as different possible: it is set in a world in which the Free Market has reached its logical conclusion and the uninsured are chased even to the Elysian fields by insurance salesmen after the last buck. It’s funny and creepy, but with a central message that kindness conquers all. Philip Ardagh is next and envisions a heaven filled not with a celestial host but with the Muppets: he manages to slip a sharp tug at the heartstrings into the farce and it was this story that made me cry.
Both Gillian Philip and Malorie Blackman’s stories have teenagers in the afterlife looking back at acts of cruelty, and shocking violence in Philip’s case. In their very different ways, they each explore the redeeming and liberating power of forgiveness.
Sally Nicholl’s powerful story is the only one in the collection to deal explicitly with religious faith: a girl is struggling to come to terms with her father’s suicide, and to reconcile it with their Catholic beliefs. It’s lucid, bold and sensitively done.
Frank Cottrell Boyce imagines the afterlife on Facebook, which makes perfect sense if you think about it, and uses it to explore memory and the physical sensations of experience. It’s dazzling.
Keith Gray himself concludes the collection with a warm, human story about a group of friends remembering a dead friend. Again, it’s filled with a strong sense of the physical and real, while demonstrating that what remains of us is love.
In the end the stories all seem to say that it is not so much what happens Next that matters, as what happened before: how we live now will somehow determine what happens to us in any afterlife. It’s testament to the skill of the authors, and Gray’s ability as editor, that this excellent collection provokes, reassures and above all surprises.