By DAVID CADDY
This year’s Sentinel annual short story competition saw a considerable rise in the standard of the entries with many more stories showing an understanding of the required structure. There were not so many stories that had no structure, testing of characters, opting to tell rather than show, and not moving beyond pure description. There were also fewer entrants prepared to experiment with structure and not so many page-turners as in previous years. Most of the stories under review had a developmental arc, drew the reader into their world and had something worth saying. This made the competition much more competitive and harder to judge.
A good number of stories were in some way family-related from children returning home for funerals, responding to visits from relatives, to married couples losing the heart of their relationship and becoming involved in extra-marital relationships, and the difficulties of old age. Twenty seven stories made my long list and they were all worth reading albeit tending towards the traditional with a good number of twists in the tale.
‘He’ won the First Prize. The first person narrative, written from the perspective of a young girl, gradually unfolds to reveal the deep and disturbing connections between a child and her kidnapper. The first part of the narrative shows the young girl to be within a domestic situation with the child drawing and the kidnapper being a substitute parent. There is a strong hint of predatory behaviour eventually leading to sexual possession. It becomes clear that the girl has sublimated her isolation and loneliness with a fondness and appreciation for her captor. She catches his eyebrows, mouth, smile and laugh in a drawing. She draws a lot and shows him the pictures. The girl’s uncertainties are carefully revealed to offer a broader portrait of their relationship. The narrative contains some shocks when it is revealed that the girl is approaching her sixteenth birthday, likes intimate moments with her captor, wants to help him, avoids making him angry, and that her world revolves around reading library books and endless drawing. Whilst she anticipates strawberry or lemon ice cream in celebration of her birthday, her kidnapper suggestively hints that they will celebrate together.
The narrator becomes disorientated from the outset of her rescue and experiences a series of acute emotions, which perhaps replicate her first kidnapping, from anger, tears, fearfulness, loss and solidarity with her captor. There is recognition of strange words, such as ‘parents’, and an eventual collapse and breakdown at the story’s end.
The achievement of the story comes through its consistent understatement and narrative authenticity.
The Second Prize went ‘Jail Grail’ an intricately plotted third person narrative mystery quest involving a series of well-drawn characters connected to Dartmoor prison. Written at a medium high pitch and moving back and forth narrative time, the third person narrative follows Louise’s unravelling of her uncle’s research papers left to her in his will. She befriends Barry, a Kray generation Dartmoor prison inmate, sees an 1806 map of Dartmoor when the prison opened in a local pub, where the landlord, Sully Morland’s family has been around for generations. She researches the railway line, upon which French and American prisoners had reached the prison, and a pattern begins to emerge. Barry gives her a secretly coded acrostic poem suggesting that he has more information for her. Meanwhile Sully Morland, in Paris, realises that his family has a connection to the Bastille, through his ancestor Colonel Francois-Morlan, whose body had been repatriated in a barrel of rum reputedly also containing something else of the highest value. He instantly enlists the help of the Louvre Museum librarian, a French history specialist, to discover more. Barry informs Louise that the secret is in a French stone paperweight in the Governor’s office. She breaks the paperweight to find a magnificent blue diamond. However, the story ends with a twist as Barry unearths the Crown of Charlemagne in a forgotten granite chamber whilst working in the prison garden. The strengths of this story lie in its brilliantly developed plot.
The Third Prize went to ‘Snapped’ a first person narrative concerning the efforts of a furniture maker, obsessed with the aura of becoming a celebrated photographer, who strikes gold when the wife of a famous photographer commissions him to design and make a bookcase and cupboard. The narrator’s life is fuelled by the fantasies and dreams he associates with being a celebrity photographer. The story examines and tests the extent to which the narrator will go to attempt to realise his dreams of being discovered and becoming the man’s assistant or partner. The narration shows the intensity of the emotional impact of the mere possibility of meeting the celebrity photographer and is framed by the steps towards this aim. He is continually thwarted and misses him at every turn. He is mostly dealing with the wife, a former model now described as by him as ‘a rare breed of scrawny chicken’. He doubts himself, his bespoke designs, yet still shudders with excitement at the prospect of being discovered and elevated to the world of fashion photography and supermodels. He becomes fearful that he will never meet the man himself. He deliberately arrives late in the afternoon for the fitting to increase his chances of meeting the man. He feels sorry for the flirtatious wife and becomes agitated as he sees his fantasy slipping from his grasp. The story then turns as the wife, in a too-short skirt, reveals a past life of loneliness and isolation in the modelling business. He tries to turn the conversation around to photography and her husband as she effectively seduces him. When her husband finally returns he reveals the reason for his delayed departure. The photographer, who has an open relationship with his wife, is so affronted by being cuckolded by another photographer that he throws him out.
The five Highly Commended Stories were ‘Feet of clay’, ‘Along the Canal’, ‘The Fiddler’s Rest’, ‘The Animals Came In Two By Two’ and ‘A Christmas Carol’.
‘Feet of clay’, written in retrospective first person, concerns a teacher whose reaction to the news that his wife is leaving him during their wedding anniversary celebration at a local restaurant is witnessed by Gibson, the school ‘barbarian ringleader’. The tense story concerns his fear of exposure, despite offering to resign from his position, and the changes that the incident brings about in himself and Gibson. It is well structured and has a strong developmental arc.
‘Along the Canal’ is a first person narrative from the perspective of a conscientious violinist in an orchestra. The impressive narrative characterisation of Julia holds the story together as the reader is drawn into the intimate world of the musicians and their love lives. Julia, the narrator, is changed by events and is able to move forward. ‘The Fiddler’s Rest’ is a third person narrative concerning Lisa, a relative failure as a Social Anthropology student, who gets a minimum wage job fron old-fashioned Dave at the Fiddler’s Rest pub. Dave treats Lisa, despite her successes, poorly and she is moved to take action to better her situation. She successfully manoeuvres her self to take over the pub from the incompetent Dave and grows from her experiences. In ‘The Animals Came In Two By Two’, the first person narrator is moved by meeting her great Uncle Jo to make a stirring speech of support for his work for the protection of animals. She is persuaded by her great Uncle Jo’s sincerity, built around his own self-neglect, to raise money from her family to help Jo and his cause. This works to reform the family’s view of Jo and Jo himself, who is able to devote much needed time to cleaning his home and looking after himself. ‘A Christmas Carol’ is a first person narrative flawlessly written in the formal style of mid-Victorian English. The story revolves around hopes of the narrator to have Christmas dinner with an irresistible woman, and is a page-turner. The narrator resists other temptations and risks increased dismay and desolation as Christmas draws inexorably nearer. Disappointed, he reaches despair on Christmas Day until his luck changes at the last moment.
The five Commended entrants were ‘Cheddar Pink’, ‘Ukuthwala’, ‘There Is Always That’, ‘A Summer (Un)like Any Other’ and ‘Daffodils’.
‘Cheddar Pink’, a third person narrative, shone through its clever use of a plant in the plot. Yvonne, who thoroughly detests her husband, Duncan, of thirty years, has shoelaces, which are always coming undone. After failing to find a lover, she feels trapped and plans a tragic accident for Duncan on their annual Cornish headland holiday. The twist in the tale comes when it her that falls and trips off the cliffs, as a result of her shoelaces, and not Duncan. ‘Ukuthwala’, a revelatory, first person narrative, concerns a Soweto born journalist interviewing academics and students about the cultural problems of Zulu students from rural KwaZulu-Natal. He is a moved by the story of a beautiful and talented third year student and discovers that rural traditions and customs operate above the law. In this way, he finds an important story to report. ‘There Is Always That’ focuses upon a questionnaire interview and its impact on the young researcher, Jen, and the elderly painter, Timmins, to reveal stark differences between them and a lack of understanding between the generations. Timmins finally breaks the spell of the interview when he is able to paint her strange, otherworldliness and finish his painting. ‘A Summer (Un)like Any Other’, a quirky first person narrative, concerns an annual summer fair, where its inhabitants are obsessed by a hurricane survival contest. The narrator effortlessly draws the reader into this strange world of storm competitions. When the town authorities ban the contest, the narrator wins an illegal alternative but it is not the real thing. People leave town as a result of the ban and he embarks on a fool’s errand to find another hurricane contest in another town. In ‘Daffodils’ an unsympathetic first person narrator returns to her parent’s home in a clash between her disobedient lifestyle and her father’s conservatism. The breakdown in understanding and dysfunctional nature of the family is explored during the course of her visit. She is revealed as the spoilt and uncaring outcome of his conservatism, which she completely rejects, and he continues to be a loving father and husband. The developmental arc is gradual and the revelations more intricate being held in small details.