TagBristol Short Story Prize

Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology, Vol. 5 (2012)

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.)

Previously
Read my review of the 2010 Bristol Prize anthology.

ShortStoryVille and the Bristol Short Story Prize

Last Saturday was the inaugural (and, I’m sure, not the last) ShortStoryVille festival in Bristol, in which Joe Melia of the Bristol Short Story Prize had kindly asked me to participate. When I arrived in Bristol that morning, the weather was grey, miserable and damp—in other words, perfect weather for staying in and reading a book. But it was great to see how many people had instead made the trip to the Arnolfini arts centre to hear short stories being read and discussed.

In the day’s first panel, the writer and critic Bidisha interviewed Sarah Salway, Alison MacLeod, and Janice Galloway about the art of writing short fiction. The three authors also read from their work, which really brought home to me how much their work seemed intended to be spoken; with Galloway’s piece especially, it was a completely different experience hearing the rhythms of her prose read aloud. Following on from the writing panel, we flipped it around to discuss reading short stories, and this was where I joined Scott Pack and Clare Hey in conversation with Tania Hershman; I think (and hope!) that we managed to say something interesting and useful.

The second half of the day began with Joe Spurgeon of the local magazine Venue interviewing Helen Oyeyemi and Stuart Evers about their latest books; if you haven’t read them, do, as both are very good indeed. Then came a series of readings from local writers, compèred by Bristol Prize chair of judges, Bertel Martin; the authors involved were Sarah Hilary, Patricia Ferguson, Gareth Powell, Emma Newman, Tania Hershman, and Amy Mason. Between their readings and recommendations, I have yet more books I want to investigate.

And after ShortStoryVille came the presentation of this year’s Bristol Short Story Prize. Congratulations to Emily Bullock, who won for her story ‘My Girl’; I read it on the train home, and it is a worthy winner. My thanks to Joe Melia and everyone else involved in ShortStoryVille for superb day; I am pleased to have been a part of it, and hope that it will turn out to have been the first of many. At a time when the BBC has announced plans to reduce the volume of short fiction programming on Radio 4, it’s good to have an event like ShortStoryVille to reassert that the short story is a vital art form.

Elsewhere

Some more write-ups of ShortStoryVille…
Vanessa Gebbie
Clare Hey
Tania Hershman

In case you ever wanted to hear me speak about short fiction…

…you now have a chance to do so. On 16th July, the Bristol Short Story Prize will be hosting ShortStoryVille, its first festival of short stories. And, at 1.30, you will find this item on the programme:

1.30 – 2.30 Reading Short Stories – panel discussion chaired by acclaimed short story writer Tania Hershman. Is there an art to reading a short story? Is it very different from other forms of fiction? Does it depend on where a story is read: a collection, single story in a magazine, on an ereader? Tania is joined by three passionate short story readers- book reviewer and blogger David HebblethwaiteClare Hey, former editor at HarperCollins and founder of trailblazing, digital-only short story publisher Shortfire Press and Scott Pack, publisher at The Friday Project, influential blogger, commentator, reader, creator of the popular meandmyshortstories blog and all-round book-billy.

The rest of the schedule is here; it includes writers like Helen Oyeyemi, Stuart Evers and Sarah Salway — sounds a good line-up to me.

The ShortStoryVille festival will be held on Saturday 16th July from 12.00 to 6.00 at the Arnofini arts centre, Bristol. Expect to see more short fiction coverage on here during the run-up.

Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology, Vol. 3 (2010)

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.

Elsewhere
A.J. Kirby reviews the anthology for The Short Review

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