This year’s annual short story competition saw a rise in the standard of entries and wider range of themes and approaches to the craft. It was a most enjoyable competition to judge, as there were a good number of unpredictable page-turners as well as inventive use of structure. There were a number of stories that had no structure, testing of the characters, opted to tell rather than show, and did not move beyond pure description. It is insufficient to rely upon a static description of a memory, moment, state or condition that involves no action and revelation. There should be a storyline, and a distinctive narrative voice in first or third person. A minimalist approach to story development can work if the detail is exactly cut, the voice authentic, within a knowing or flawed first or third person narrative, and directed by a desire to reveal something significant. In the stories under review those that relied upon no developmental arc failed to replace the storyline with something that forced to reader to re-read the piece. There were a refreshing number of stories that were prepared to experiment with structure. Most of these stories drew the reader into their world and had something worth saying. It was a joy to read so many quirky stories that refreshed the mental palette.
The best stories in the competition were incredibly varied in style and tone. They were thoroughly unpredictable, page-turners, that grabbed attention with narrative force, and strong atmosphere, precise and memorable detail and a clear structure that stayed in the memory after reading. Twenty four stories made my long list. They were all commendable and quite different, ranging from the traditional to experimental.
‘Country Life’ by Clare Marsh won the First Prize. This story resonated through its symmetry and powerful reading of the social, economic and historical differences between urban and country living. The narrator undergoes a transformation as she discovers a dead body in Furnace Pond. The narrator and her family had moved to edge of a rural village, with an industrial iron foundry past, to renovate a cottage and have a taste of country living. The narrative evokes the village’s historical past and social history with minimum fuss and filtered detail. Each part of the story has another revelation, which changes the narrator’s understanding and perspective on place and people.
The movement from not knowing to knowing is negotiated in a natural way through the use of exquisite prose and strong emotional undertow. The reader moves with the narrative as it unfolds and is forced to think about significant changes in the countryside that devastate local lives. The story shows that location impacts upon identity in a memorable and compelling way. This is outstanding writing.
‘Fred’s Fish ‘n Chips’ by Mairi Wilson won the Second Prize. This immensely enjoyable retrospective first person narrative is full of twists and turns and has a compelling simplicity. It is driven by an authentic and convincing narrative voice. It does not feel forced and fully embraces a simple developmental arc. The short stabbing sentences beautifully evoke and mirror the narrator’s background, family, status and age, and work to make the story linger long after being read. The storyline, action, dialogue are strong and clear, supported by exact and observed detail, and the writing, which combines humour, characterization and rapid movement, works its way into your memory.
‘The ‘Cuckoo of Awareness’‘ by Andrew Brush won the Third Prize through the sheer force of its imaginative construction. This was the strongest of the many strange and quirky stories. It combined compact structure, based upon the drug fuelled thoughts and visions of an angler, with a knowing and unpredictable first person narrative. This page-turner combined striking writing with a strong developmental arc that showed rather than told the reader. It drew the reader into its wide and cultured world and played around with narrative expectations.
It was thus a joy to be taken on a journey.
The five Highly Commended Stories were, in no particular order, ‘Bargaining Powers’, ‘Home Truths’, ‘Hera’s Echo’, ‘Kalahari Sands’ and ‘It’s Not What You Know, It’s Who You Know’. Each one had considerable positive strength that marked them out as special.
‘Bargaining Powers’ by Anna Joseph was a well-filtered, third person narrative with a shocking twist in the tale. A simple developmental arc, concerning the sale and purchase of a white rattan bedside table was clear and unpredictable and woven into an increasingly complex story that was gradually revealed. This propelled the reader forward to a surprising end. It was beautifully constructed and well executed.
In ‘Home Truths’ by Gill Holland the first person narrator, the daughter returning to her parental home to visit her Dad, chronically ill and in need of constant care, and mother. In this family drama, full of silences, uncertainties and role reversals, she confronts her mother about a suspected infidelity and is transformed by the experience in a carefully developed and emotionally powerful story.
‘Hera’s Echo’ by Seth Insua has a good developmental arc based around the myth of the nymph, Echo, who would attract and amuse Zeus’ wife, Hera, as applied to the love lives of a group of students. This contemporary version of the story is written with verve and gusto from the first person perspective of a Classics student, a modern Hera, seeing her boyfriend as Zeus and best friend, Lauren, as Echo, and has a memorable twist in the tale.
‘Kalahari Sands’ by Terence Brick, a first person narrative written in episodic fragments, has a strong narrative arc, description and dialogue. It is compact, cohesive and revolves around the uncertainty of a salesman securing an overseas deal and his own employment. The episodic structure serves the narrative wonderfully as the reader is unable to securely predict the story’s resolution and is thus propelled forward on a journey. To add spice to this structure, the narrator is allusive and volatile.
‘It’s Not What You Know, It’s Who You Know’ by Joe Hackett, is a more traditional story. This third person narrative is perfectly symmetrical, with every paragraph fitting glove-like into the narrative arc. The force of the narrative and dialogue combine to produce a surprising twist at the end to confirm the title’s sentiment. Above all, it is a memorable piece of writing.
The two Commended Stories were both well-structured and unusual.
‘Cashmere: Mere Cash’ by Joan Byrne is a simple first person narrative that has two unfolding stories. A woman who unexpectedly buys a cashmere sweater from a recently divorced woman on a market stall is gradually transformed as she considers how to change her financial situation. It is the smell and touch of the cashmere sweater that leads her thoughts into a new world. Meanwhile, the divorcee’s mental health and physical appearance become impaired by the loss of her previously secure situation. ‘Oh Pollock’ by Colin Watts, is a strange fantasy, written in first person narrative. Essentially it concerns the desire and lengths that people will go to find a suitable sexual partner. The narrative arc and detail work together in harmony to produce a beguiling story that lingers in the mind.