The Bristol Short Story Prize is awarded annually to stories of up to 3,000 words, with the twenty shortlisted pieces being published in an anthology. On the table today is the anthology resulting from last year’s Prize, and a nicely wide-ranging selection it is, too.
The three stories on the winners’ podium are printed first in the anthology, so that seems a good place to start. The story awarded first prize by the judges is the shortest of all, just a few hundred words, yet it’s plain to see why the judges thought so highly of it. ‘Mum’s the Word’ by Valerie O’Riordan is about a girl being abused by her father; its detail is so chillingly precise (‘Three times with his grunting and the calloused hand over my mouth…’) that the story has a much greater impact than its length might suggest. A worthy winner.
Ian Madden was the second-placed author, for ‘Only the Sure of Foot’, a tale of grudges and secrets on a Scottish island. Madden evokes the harshness of his setting well, and how that has shaped his characters; I particularly like the ending, which effectively uses the landscape as a metaphor for the unspoken territory between two of its characters. Third prize went to a debut story, ‘Gardening’ by Rachel Howard, in which an old woman named Elena moves into the garden of Alice, who has become too afraid to leave her home. I like the matter-of-fact tone of this piece, the way that the rather odd situation becomes something important for both women – and the story ends in just the right place.
Though I’ve described the situation in ‘Gardening’ as rather odd, there’s a whole different level of oddness in Ben Walker’s ‘Bitter Gourd Fruit’, where a man from our present day wakes to find himself a severed head (with faculties and speech intact) on board a ship, apparently some time in the past. Walker tells his story with a straight face, and the occasional nod which acknowledges the absurdity of its premise (with the protagonist’s help, the ship’s crew end up rehearsing an adaptation of Highlander). It’s a tone that works well at keeping the story sufficiently grounded, all the way to the nicely-judged ending.
Mike Bonsall’s ‘Man Friday and the Sockball Championships’ is another story that takes a fantastical situation and works by focusing on the reality of that situation rather than on explaining it. Bonsall’s protagonist is imprisoned in one of a series of cubes in a vast cavern; he doesn’t hunger, and heals completely if injured – but he can go nowhere, and doesn’t know where he is or how he got there. Bonsall explores well the emotional state of his protagonist, and the varying stages of bewilderment, claustrophobia, resignation, and trying to cope. Natasha Tripney’s story, ‘An Experiment’, likewise features a protagonist trapped by forces beyond their control, though in a very different setting. Cecily is a (presumably poor) girl who has been taken into a wealthy household to receive the kind of education (in Latin, piano, arithmetic, and so on) that would otherwise have been denied her; here, Cecily’s benefactors assess her progress. This is a tale where the connotations of the title carry considerable weight: Cecily’s humanity has been eroded, because she is viewed in the story as an experimental subject, Tripney never allows her readers to lose sight of that, and it gives the story an effective note of unease.
Several stories in the anthology carry a sting in their tail. ‘A Sense of Humour’ by Rik Gammack – about a man who had himself cloned as insurance against dying, and hatches a plan to take advantage of the situation – is essentially a shaggy-dog story, but amply serves its purpose as a light, entertaining read. ‘Born Not Made’ by Rachel Sargeant works well enough without the twist at its end, as it transplants the rivalry between Mozart and Salieri to present-day Britain with the tale of Mozza, a young trouble-maker with an uncool interest in (and talent for) music – an interesting juxtaposition of subtext and surface tale. Darci Bysouth’s ‘Marrakech’ is a very effective piece in which a mother reminisces to her daughter about the time she lived in Marrakech. The city becomes a symbol of lost dreams; the contrast between the mother and her more practical-minded is brought out well; and the final shift of perception adds yet another layer to the story.
There are also pieces that transport us very well into the distinctive minds of their protagonists. For example, in ‘Ten Plastic Roses’ by Yana Stajno, the protagonist, Melanie, obsesses over the fake flowers she has thrown out. They were the last gift given to her by her ex-husband Richard, and now that final symbol of him is gone – except that the council’s waste collectors won’t take the roses away. Stajno controls the flow of the story well: Melanie’s attitude changes unexpectedly, and there’s a hint that her history with Richard may not be all that she claims. The narrative voice of Clare Wallace’s ‘But Then Again, Maybe It Is’ is superbly realised; Wallace’s narrator – a man out looking for the girlfriend who has left him – is consciously unreliable, revising his testimony as he goes, such that there are few secure footholds in the story. And Sherri Turner’s ‘Being Mother’ is an unsettling piece whose narrator takes her children out for an old-style tea-party (insisting they wear traditional clothes); layer on layer of perception and reality is peeled back as the story goes on, to great effect.
So, that’s a tour of some of the highlights of the third Bristol Prize anthology. There is some good stuff here, and the book is well worth seeking out.
A.J. Kirby reviews the anthology for The Short Review