Now in its fifth year, the Bristol Short Story Prize is establishing itself as a significant award with an eye for good stories. The tales on this year’s shortlist (anthologised in this volume) are no exception.

Top honours in this year’s Bristol Prize (announced on 14th July at ShortStoryVille) went to a fiction debut: ‘Naked as Eve’ by John Arnold. At first, this appears to be a gently humorous piece; the inhabitants of a small Australian town are putting on an act for a party of tourists, entertaining them with lurid tales of a cursed pool. But then we meet the narrator Olivia’s mother, who has dementia, and we realise that Olivia has been putting on a different sort of act as well. It’s this elegant mirroring, and Arnold’s deft shift to a darker mood, that make ‘Naked as Eve’ such a good story.

The runner-up was Alys Conran’s ‘Lobster’, which focuses on a father and son in a drowning future Wales where food is scarce. Conran evokes the boy’s innocence well through his narrative voice; and the ending – with an ambiguity that doesn’t allow for a positive interpretation – carries such an impact. Third place went to ‘Going Grapefruit’ by Ian Richards, whose protagonist speaks in nonsense after a car crash (‘You want to know about the grass my custard changed?’). What makes this work is that there’s an underlying consistency to the language, and enough context for us to understand roughly what the narrator means – which makes it all the more poignant to see other characters failing to do so.

Richards’ protagonist is not the only character in the anthology seeking to be heard and understood. Christopher Parvin’s ‘Ghost in the Machine’ tells of a future where robots (‘people of the Cog’) live alongside humans, but struggle to gain acceptance. There’s dry humour in the way Parvin reflects real-world discrimination, but I also find effective the story’s mosaic construction as a collection of blog entries and emails. The protagonist of ‘Beekiller’ by Ethel Rohan is fast losing patience with her husband over his obsession with beekeeping; she resorts to desperate measures in an ending that balances absurdity with an emotional believability.

Other stories carry a sharp sting in their tails. ‘Yoki and the Toy Surprise’ by Angela Readman is a spin on the classic ‘be careful what you wish for’ tale that shifts from an amusing beginning to a melancholy end. Avril Joy’s protagonist in ‘Meat’ knows where she’s going when she says goodbye to her neighbour at the start, but it’s almost certainly nowhere that readers may have expected. William Telford’s ‘The Attack at Delium’ sees a couple arguing over various academic points of history and science; matters are brought sharply and powerfully back down to earth at the end.

Further tales in the anthology revolve more around character. The narrator of Ellie Walsh’s ‘Jelly Feel Real’ takes a trip from Christmas Island to Perth with her friend Angel; it becomes clear for various reasons what a significant journey this is. The dry narration is very effective in illuminating the protagonist’s character. ‘The Swimmer’ by Lizzie Boyle is the story of Allan Fleming, who goes for an early-morning swim every day, pacing himself according to multiples of twelve. His ordered mind is reflected in the intense detail of the prose, and Boyle shows how Allan’s world starts to unravel when he comes across something he can’t explain – and a few too many prime numbers. Hilary Wilce’s ‘I Once Knew Salman Rushdie’ is about how chance encounters can have unforeseen consequences in life; its understated tone matches the mundane school hockey-game setting, but hides the stirring of some deep emotions.

Reading this book reinforced for me the notion that there’s nothing quite like a good anthology for variety and the potential for discovery. You may not know where you’ll be when you turn the page of a new story in the fifth Bristol Prize anthology, but you can be sure it’ll be somewhere interesting.

(This review also appears at Fiction Uncovered.)

Read my review of the 2010 Bristol Prize anthology.