Book review – Protest: Stories of Resistance

Book – Protest: Stories of Resistance, edited by Ra Page. Comma Press, Manchester, UK: 2017

This review was first posted on the Mslexia Max Forum

This well-timed anthology is published by not-for-profit Comma Press and edited by founder Ra Page, the motivation behind it summarised in the byline: ‘In the age of fake news and post-truth politics this book fights fiction with (well researched, historically accurate) fiction.’

Page has worked up a fantastic range of established and emerging talent. He cites compulsion ‘to go cold turkey on the news’ and commission fact-based fiction, written in close consultation with ‘a historian, sociologist, crowd scientist, or indeed eye-witness’. Each story is followed by an afterword from the expert who assisted with establishing its verisimilitude.

Sara Maitland’s The Pardon List kicks off the set of 20 stories. Maitland writes about a girl treated with ‘cold charity’ by her village after she survived the plague shut in for five nights with her dead family at the age of 15 months. As an adult – and a scapegoat – she is befriended by the priest who teaches that the new poll tax contravenes God’s will, as does the war with France which they are to fund. Taking pity on her, he advises she sign the Pardon List following her involvement with Wat Tyler’s 1381 Great Rising, the march on London and the sacking of the Savoy Palace. Maitland narrates how things are from the woman’s perspective, live-wiring fourteenth century events with swift, sparkling prose. The woman – a wildcard personality whom it is ‘hard to love’ – refuses to sign the list.

Holly Pester’s Heavy Clay Soil, about the 1607 Midland Rising, concerns the destruction of common property rights brought about by the Enclosures. A tale of a gang of children running around the countryside hooked in by a hooded woman cutting liquorice roots in a wood, who offers them alternative portals for their futures with her mysterious bags of elemental materials, seeming to freeform them into familiars before turning them back to their quotidian, bounded lives.

Among the striking and often unforgettable contributions (Kit de Waal on Malcolm X in Smethwick, Maggie Gee on the Night Cleaners’ Strike, Joanna Quinn on Greenham Common, Jacob Ross on the New Cross Fire & The Brixton Riots), first person narratives stand out. Matthew Holness’s 1600s The Mastiff is told by the man who fought the ‘devil’s familiar’, Prince Rupert’s dog Boye. Michelle Green’s razor-sharp, painfully sensual There Are Five Ways Out Of This Room is spoken by force-fed Suffragettes. Juliet Jacques’ Section 28 story Never Going Underground, is based in the squares, streets and specific bars of Manchester. All three are fictionalised testimonies of people on the active periphery – the people who matter, after all, in grassroots protest.

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