Book Review: Collected by Dreena Collins

Much though I’m a sucker for a big chunky book or a long series, in recent years I have had a growing love for the short story. Short stories can be incredibly powerful, but it takes real skill to craft them effectively. Dreena Collins has well and truly mastered that skill.

In her forward to the collection, Collins writes of her mission to include the experiences of as many people as possible, and this is clear as story after story unfolds, painting a fascinating portrait of humanity. Characters are very much the driving force behind Collin’s storytelling. Through a cast of young and old, privileged and struggling voices, she weaves poignant snapshots of life that are moving, thought provoking and cleverly rendered. The stories touch on a wide range of issues both time worn and contemporary – everything from happiness and infidelity to gas-lighting and internet trolls.

The whole collection feels incredibly coherent, with a strong authorial style running through the wide range of narratives. There were so many stories that really stood out to me that it’s hard to choose which to spotlight in this review.

The opening story, Little Gems and Riches, packs an emotional punch, deftly capturing the trauma of loss and the hope that our loved ones never truly leave us. It sets the tone for the collection which goes on through it’s varied tales to reveal the many hidden facets of humanity – how we hide the best and worst of ourselves, how what’s hidden sometimes comes to light, the missed opportunities to tell those truths ourselves and the moments those truths are taken from us.

Another story that really stuck with me long after the reading is Social Animals. The way it captures the power and dangers of internet anonymity, as well as the habits and intentions hidden behind the posts we see on our social media feeds, is incredibly powerful. It feels particularly pertinent given the surge in ‘fake news’, cancel culture and online abuse, and serves as both a warning and a philosophical reminder of the disparities between our ‘real’ and digital worlds.

Collins also manages to give a voice to the voiceless with a deft compassion in stories like Let Me Tell You A Story and (Not) Prone To Winking. In the first, we are invited into the inner world of a child with a learning disability, hearing the words they cannot speak aloud and given a glimpse into the pain, the confusion, the love and the hope that they are unable to communicate. A beautiful reminder that just because our society expects everyone to communicate in the same way doesn’t mean it’s the only way to communicate, the only way to be. In (Not) Prone To Winking, the main narrative is delivered in a confident male voice which Collins cleverly intersperses with brief bracketed asides from a female voice. Through this simple but effectively used device, the story the male narrator is telling us is undermined by the revelations of this second perspective, highlighting the very real dangers of gaslighting and controlling relationships. I loved this story and thought it was brilliantly executed, bringing a whole new meaning to the idea of unreliable narration.

Towards the end of the collection are several much shorter stories, some barely half a page long. One of my favourites from this section is This Is Where She Died, which showcases Collin’s talent for creating moments of emotional connection perfectly. Less than two pages in length, it nevertheless brought a lump to my throat and tears to my eyes, and left me suffused with comfort and hope.

This is truly a wonderful collection which felt reminiscent of Julia Armfield’s Salt Slow. Collins captures with grace the pinnacles and pitfalls of human relationships, provides both critical and empathetic examinations of the inner self, and does it all through compelling characters and neatly turned plots. She is a skilled wordsmith indeed and I look forward with great anticipation to reading more of her work in future.

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