TagEdge Hill Prize

Edge Hill Prize 2013: And the winner is…

Last night, the 2013 Edge Hill Short Story Prize was awarded to Kevin Barry for his collection Dark Lies the Island.

As well as the main prize, Barry also won the Readers’ Prize. These add to a growing tally of prizes that he has won in recent years – with good reason. What was also clear from Barry’s acceptance speech was that he’s a great ambassador for the short story. Many congratulations to him.

Elsewhere on the blog, you can read my review of  Dark Lies the Island here; and check out a discussion from last year of Kevin Barry’s story ‘Atlantic City’.

Edge Hill Prize 2013: shortlist round-up

Time for one last post on the Edge Hill Short Story Prize before this year’s winner is announced on Thursday night. Here, in a format inspired by one of Naomi Frisby’s posts on the Women’s Prize, is an overview of the shortlist with a few words on why each book might win. I’ve also included a selection of ‘key stories’ for each, which are not intended to be a statement of the ‘best’ ones, but are chosen to illustrate the range of each book.

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Dark Lies the Island by Kevin Barry (Jonathan Cape)

My review on the blog.

Why it might win: It’s a good all-round collection exploring the joys, hopes, and sorrows of life. Barry’s versatility is clear to see, his prose a delight to read.

Key stories: ‘Across the Rooftops’; ‘Beer Trip to Llandudno’; ‘Ernestine and Kit’.

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Astray by Emma Donoghue (Pan Macmillan)

My review on the blog.

Why it might win: Illuminates history in a distinctive, multi-faceted way.

Key stories: ‘The Widow’s Cruse’; ‘The Gift’; ‘What Remains’.

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The Stone Thrower by Adam Marek (Comma Press)

My review on the blog:

Why it might win: strong thematic unity in its exploration of parents’ concern for children; and a thoughtful, emotion-centred approach to its speculative material.

Key stories: ‘Fewer Things’; ‘A Thousand Seams’; ‘Santa Carla Day’.

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This Isn’t the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You by Jon McGregor (Bloomsbury)

My review on the blog.

Why it might win: Perhaps the most acute psychological insight of all the shortlisted collections; and vivid, sensitive depiction of life’s mundanities.

Key Stories: ‘If It Keeps On Raining’; ‘We Wave and Call’; ‘Keeping Watch Over the Sheep’.

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Hitting Trees with Sticks by Jane Rogers (Comma Press)

My review on the blog.

Why it might win: explores its recurring theme (understanding, or a lack thereof) from many angles – and some superb characterisation.

Key stories: ‘Hitting Trees with Sticks’; ‘Red Enters the Eye’; ‘Kiss and Tell’.

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Diving Belles by Lucy Wood (Bloomsbury)

My review at Strange Horizons.

Why it might win: Wood combines Cornish folklore and contemporary life to create a world that’s all her own. There’s proper magic in this book.

Key stories: ‘Countless Stones’; ‘The Wishing Tree’; ‘Some Drolls Are Like That, and Some Are Like This’.

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Follow hashtag #EHShort on Twitter for news of the winner.

“You can’t get thoughts out of your mind just by trying”

Jon McGregor, This Isn’t the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You (2012)

Perhaps above all else, what emerges clearly from this collection for me is that Jon McGregor is a superb writer of the mundane. I suspect this is an undervalued quality in a writer (certainly I have undervalued it in the past); but This Isn’t the Sort of Thing demonstrates its value quite clearly.

The book’s opening piece, a two-page vignette entitled ‘That Colour’ is a fine example of what McGregor can achieve on a small canvas: while her partner (the narrator) washes the dishes, a woman looks out of the window and tries to describe the colour into which the trees are turning (“When you close your eyes on a sunny day, it’s a bit like that colour”). Sensing her apparent surprise, the narrator describes the process of chlorophyll breaking down in leaves; but the woman already knows that: “It’s just lovely, they’re lovely, that’s all, you don’t have to”. There we have two characters sketched briefly yet precisely – one thinking in practical terms, the other more intuitively – and the sense of an awkward emotional space between them. We can only guess what may have happened to create that space; but the simple gesture at the end, of the pair holding hands and the narrator saying, “But tell me again,” is enough to show that the gap between the couple is starting to be bridged. It’s a small but telling moment, depicted economically yet with a true sense of the way people talk around each other.

This Isn’t the Sort of Thing has a good number of these very short pieces (some just a few sentences long) which capture little ironies and significant details. ‘Airshow’ sees a family returning from a funeral, and deciding to take the grandfather to see his old station during the war – but there’s nothing much to see at the airfield, and nothing much that he wants to say. The family also goes past a current RAF base, where there’s a display of vintage aircraft; at home, the grandfather asks “just what it was those people with the binoculars had thought they might be waiting to see”. That one remark encompasses thoughts on the passing of time, and the transformation of the horrors that the grandfather would have seen into a nostalgic tourist attraction. ‘The Remains’ evokes the despair of losing a loved one through the use of dispassionate sentence-fragments which could all begin with the two words of its title (“Are believed to still be intact,” and so on). The piece ends with the phrase “Have yet to be found” repeated over and over – a truth inescapable on the page, as it would be in life.

[EDIT: Max’s comment below prompts me to add, in case I’ve given the wrong impression, that there are also some longer pieces in the book – though a majority are ten pages or fewer.]

One of McGregor’s hallmarks in these stories is how, through language, he shows characters trapped in particular thought and behaviour patterns. ‘If It Keeps On Raining’ (which I wrote about previously here) focuses on a man building a shelter for the flood he’s sure is coming; we discover that he was a police officer at Hillsborough, who cannot let go of what he experienced there – the surging river reminds him of the surging crowd, and images of that day go around and around in his head. The narrator of ‘What Happened to Mr Davison’ is giving evidence at an inquest; they hide behind the rhetoric of officialdom to deflect attention from whatever it was that affected the titular farmer – but occasionally we catch glimpses of the real person underneath, who would like to be more forthright, though the circumstances (and perhaps also professional obligations) do not allow it.

McGregor’s stories are populated by often anonymous characters, at what may often seem at first to be unexceptional moments in their lives. But, time and again, the author takes us beneath the surface to show how pivotal those moments can be.

This book has been shortlisted for the 2013 Edge Hill Short Story Prize. Click here to read my other posts on the shortlist.

See also:
My other posts about Jon McGregor’s work.
Some other reviews of this book: Sam Ruddock for Vulpes Libris; dovegreyreader; Valerie O’Riordan for Bookmunch.

“The more you saw of a person the less you knew them”

Jane Rogers, Hitting Trees with Sticks (2012)

It’s no surprise to see “Winner of the 2012 Arthur C. Clarke Award” on the front cover of Jane Rogers’ first story collection – The Testament of Jessie Lamb is probably her best-known novel right now, and no doubt for many (including myself) it was an introduction to her work. So it seems worth asking as a way in, where do the stories of Hitting Trees with Sticks stand in relation to Jessie Lamb? Well, think of that novel as a tale about understanding – about a girl trying to explain herself to the parents who can’t understand the choice she wants to make. Understanding (or failure to understand) is a theme that also runs through this collection, and Rogers approaches it from many angles.

There are some adolescent protagonists in Hitting Trees with Sticks, but they don’t necessarily get Jessie Lamb’s chance to set their thoughts out. In ‘Sports Leader’, a boy who’s missed out on a place at college takes a job as a window cleaner – partly because it lets him nosy into other people’s houses. One senses that he means well at heart, but isn’t too worldly-wise; as a result, others may take advantage of him. The Sports Leadership course for which he still holds out becomes a symbol of the boy’s thwarted hopes and potential.

At least he still has a life ahead of him, though, unlike the title character of ‘Where Are You, Stevie?’ The story begins with a narrator, Amanda, expressing her current frustrations: Christmas is getting earlier, and why have they sent that young lout to work at the theatre, it’s not as if he’ll do anything… But she is brought up short when she learns that Stevie is dead. We then hear from Stevie’s grandmother, his girlfriend, and his neighbour, who each reveal more about him; we come to see how Stevie got into the situation he did, and that there was more to him than Amanda supposed. The presence of Stevie looms large even though he is fundamentally absent; he is understood by the reader as he could not have been by those in his life.

Elsewhere in the collection, Rogers’ characters are finding that they didn’t know as much as they thought, or try to hide knowledge from others. The narrator of ‘Kiss and Tell’ was on a writing retreat with a famous politician whom she at first thought obnoxious, though she eventually had cause to change her mind. ‘The Tale of a Naked Man’ sees a Ugandan man arrive home nude at 4am in a bush taxi and attempt to convince his wife that his story of being waylaid by bandits is true – but there’s no real way of knowing, as story piles upon story. In ‘Conception’, a mother is reluctant to tell her daughter what she and her partner were thinking when the girl was conception. ‘Morphogenesis’ presents Alan Turing as a man who apprehended the workings of the universe as had none before him, but was ultimately destroyed by a human world that refused to understand him.

The title story of Hitting Trees with Sticks is also its closing piece, and for me its most powerful. It is a first-person portrait of Celia Benson, an old woman with dementia. Rogers takes us inside a psyche which continually makes and remakes the world. Celia’s viewpoint makes sense to her, and the details that don’t fit are mistakes or absent-mindedness – the Meals on Wheels must be for some poor old dear, not her; and Celia has obviously just mislaid the shopping. But then the moment passes, and a new present is formed: Celia has lost the sense of continuity that would enable her to engage with the world – though of course, as far as she’s concerned, nothing is wrong. ‘Hitting Trees with Sticks’ is a harrowing piece of fiction, made all the more so by our knowledge that its protagonist cannot step out of the perspective we experience through her narration. As readers, we understand Celia all too well.

This book has been shortlisted for the 2013 Edge Hill Short Story Prize. Click here to read my other posts on the shortlist.

(Read some other reviews of Hitting Trees with Sticks: Shortly Speaking; Carys Bray for The Short Review; Carlotta Eden for Thresholds; Elizabeth Simner for For Books’ Sake.)

“This is how hard you should have fought for my son when you brought him into the world”

Adam Marek, The Stone Thrower (2012)

Who is the Stone Thrower? In the title story of this, Adam Marek’s second collection, he is a boy killing the chickens  of the lakeside house that Hal’s family is renting. Hal pulls out all the stops to save his birds, demonstrating an action hero’s dexterity – but he is unprepared for just how determined the boy is to achieve his goal. In the collection as a whole, the figure of the Stone Thrower may the extraordinary forces at work in Marek’s stories, forces that may inspire extraordinary (to us, at least) responses in the adult characters seeking to protect their charges (chickens in Hal’s case, but more often children).

Marek’s tales typically begin with what appears to be a fairly unremarkable situation, but as they develop we may discover that not all is as it seems. In ‘The Stormchasers’, a father heads out with his son Jakey to go looking for a tornado. At story’s end, however, we find that the true purpose of that journey was to protect Jakey from a different kind of storm which has been going on at home. ‘Remember the Bride Who Got Stung?’ sees Victor out on a picnic with his family, when his allergic son Nate is stung by a bee; having left behind Nate’s shots , Victor determines to get the child’s adrenaline flowing – by any means necessary.

That latter story in particular illustrates one of Marek’s common techniques: to show how particular circumstances have shaped a character’s psychology in ways that appear reasonable to them, but may not to an outside observer like the reader. But – like many of The Stone Thrower’s tale’s – ‘Remember the Bride’ is understatedly and elegantly fantasticated. The appearance of a bee is a rare occurrence in the world of this story; and that’s the only hint we receive that we may be reading about a near future.

When Marek writes about the future (or an alternative present), there’s usually a greater degree of difference than that; but he’s always primarily concerned with the characters and their relationships. ‘Tamagotchi’ sees a new, more sophisticated, generation of those virtual pets on the market. Young Luke has a Tamagotchi which is sick, and spreading that sickness to other children’s pets; one parent asks that he keep away from the other children at a birthday party. But Luke is also epileptic, and his parents talk about him having a “design fault”: the stigma of having a sick Tamagotchi shades into how Luke is treated because of his condition, and affects the way his parents think about him. Sometimes this kind of mirroring extends further outwards: in ‘A Thousand Seams’, a mother clutches her ill son in the midst of a protest and tells him, ‘”WI’m going to make everything okay”. It’s an open question whether the boy or society is more threatened by having too much pressure placed on their respective weak points.

The collection ends with ‘Earthquakes’, which tells of a boy named Toby who has a rare condition that induces seizures which have external effects. The effect is different in each case (Toby’s seizures cause earth tremors), but no children with the syndrome have yet lived into their teens. The format of this story gives it a slightly different tone from most of the others in The Stone Thrower: it’s written as a generic fundraising letter – the details of the case are specific, but there’s just a placeholder for the recipient. So we have a curious mix of the personal and impersonal: there’s enough of a story about the text that it carries emotional weight; but there is also a sense that it may all be fake, a marketing document generated to drum up sympathy and cash. Even if we accept ‘Earthquakes’ as genuine, it feels like a lonely cry in the dark, because the mother writing this letter doesn’t know if anyone will ever read it. But, as ever in Marek’s stories, the adult characters will go to any length for their children if the circumstances demand it.

This book has been shortlisted for the 2013 Edge Hill Short Story Prize. Click here to read my other posts on the shortlist.

“When you change countries, perhaps your old self stays fixed to your back, like a turtle’s shell”

Emma Donoghue, Astray (2012)

Emma Donoghue is best- known for her contemporary novel Room (2010), but most of her fiction to date has been historical, as is the story collection Astray. Some of these tales dramatise the lives of specific (though often largely forgotten) characters from history, others create fictional faces for real events; but all are based to some degree on incidents of travel to, from, or within North America.

Donoghue has a keen eye for an interesting or unusual story. The very first piece in the book, ‘Man and Boy’ is about Jumbo, an elephant who was sold to Barnum’s circus; as narrator, his keeper in London narrates his sorrow and frustration at having to let Jumbo go. In ‘The Widow’s Cruse’, a New York attorney named Huddlestone thinks he has the measure of Mrs Gomez, a young widow who comes seeking his services. The stage is set for Huddlestone to make a pretty penny – but all is not quite as it seems. Mrs Gomez and Huddlestone both create strong impressions in the reader; these two stories illustrate what we see time and again in Astray – history painted in bold colours or from unexpected angles.

Two of my favourite stories in the collection alternate between perspectives, to considerable effect. ‘The Gift’ tells of a girl given up for adoption in the late 19th century, and the battle fought over her by the girl’s birth mother and adoptive father. This story is told entirely in the form of letters written to the anonymous adoption agency – so the two narrators never communicate directly, and the girl’s voice is never even heard. The poignancy of ‘The Gift’ lies in the sense of a life being pushed around by forces beyond the individual’s control, and that any hope of a resolution lies impossibly far away.

‘Counting the Days’ moves between Jane and Henry Johnson: she is on the last day of a voyage from Belfast to Québec, where he already waits. But, while Jane looks forward to a joyful reunion and a new life together in Canada, Henry is unwell – and we know that Jane’s dreams are not to be. Donoghue presents  this piece without breaks between scenes, which not only emphasises the closeness, the mirroring of the two protagonists; it also denies the reader space to separate the two mentally. We’re not reading about two chains of events, but about a single one that spirals down to a bitterly ironic conclusion. The characters in Astray may travel, but not all of their journeys finish.

This book has been shortlisted for the 2013 Edge Hill Short Story Prize. Click here to read my other posts on the shortlist.

(Read some other reviews of Astray: Jessica Freeman-Slade for The Millions; Fran Slater for Bookmunch; Josh Goller for Spectrum Culture.)

“We all trailed home along the sleeping streets, with youth packed away, and life about to begin”

Kevin Barry, Dark Lies the Island (2012)

In the title story of Kevin Barry’s second collection, the protagonist Sara has travelled to the edge of Clew Bay, County Mayo, which seems to her father quite a desolate spot to be heading in October. Ostensibly, Sara has gone there to work on some art projects during her year out; but it is soon clear that she is at Clew Bay to get away from it all, in the most final sense. Sara’s human contact is largely limited to the other members of an internet forum accessed on her holiday home’s creaky dial-up; for the rest of the time, it’s just the landscape of Clew Bay and the inside of Sara’s own head, ‘the itch of her blood as it sped’. ‘Dark Lies the Island’ is an intensely discomfiting piece that ends with an ambiguity, perhaps a fragile hope.

So I’ve headed this review with a quotation which refers to life beginning, then I immediately launch into talking about a story that hovers on the verge of death. But that is both the breadth of life which Barry fits into his stories, and that there’s always a sense within them that life carries on, bringing with it variously hope and melancholy. In a few pages, ‘Across the Rooftops’ brilliantly captures the uncertainty of youthful attraction, as its student narrator tries to read the signs of the girl he’s with, waiting for the right moment to make a move that could take their journey of the last few months to its next stage, or end it altogether. The men in ‘Beer Trip to Llandudno’ have all been hurt or damaged in some way; and what seems at first like a jolly outing to sample some pubs may actually be the only thing holding these men together. Whatever happens, there’ll always be another pub to try, and the possibility of a fine ale.

This is one of Barry’s common techniques: to show how his characters use external events as a shield or distraction from what is happening deeper inside. ‘Wifey Redux’ begins with its narrator. Jonathan, describing his fairytale marriage to his school sweetheart, Saoirse –  but he has already warned us that the tale will end with his being arrested. And, sure enough, cracks begin to show in the couple’s relationship as their daughter Ellie grows up, becoming the image of her mother as she was. Jonathan takes a dislike to Ellie’s new boyfriend, and is increasingly uncomfortable with the thought of his daughter doing the same sorts of things that he and Saoirse did at her age. As we come to  see, though, Jonathan is not so much protecting Ellie’s honour as he is trying to reassert himself when he feels that what he had – what he was – is slipping from his grasp.

Some of the tales in Dark Lies the Island shift the general tone of the collection quite effectively. ‘Ernestine and Kit’ starts off as a whimsical road-trip taken by two chatty old women, but gradually turns more sinister, as Barry ups the ante more than once. Then there are the stories where Barry’s humour – often a subtle undercurrent – comes strongly to the fore: ‘Berlin Arkonaplatz – My Lesbian Summer’ sees 21-year-old Patrick spend an odyssey of a summer with the fabulous Silvija (‘By her own reckoning, Silvija was at this time the most brilliant fashion photographer in all of Berlin. This didn’t mean that she got paid’). The narrator of ‘Fjord of Killary’ bought a hotel which came with idiosyncratic locals (‘The primary interest of these people’s lives, it often seemed, was how far one place was from another, and how long it might take to complete the journey, given the state of the roads’), and is now coming to the end of his tether. For Patrick, the summer is – of course – too wonderful to last; but something happens which allows the hotelier to find his feet once more. There’s life moving on again, bringing or ending joy.

This book has been shortlisted for the 2013 Edge Hill Short Story Prize. Click here to read my other posts on the shortlist.

(Elsewhere: see what RobAroundBooks and Valerie O’Riordan (writing for Bookmunch) had to say about Dark Lies the Island.)

Edge Hill Prize 2013: the shortlist

A week after Chris Beckett won the Clarke Award, along comes the new shortlist for the award he won a few years ago, the Edge Hill Short Story Prize (there’s a former Clarke winner on this year’s Edge Hill shortlist, too). It is, I think, a cracking list:

That’s a really strong set of writers. The only one of the books I’ve read to date is Diving Belles (which I loved); you can read my review by clicking on the link above. I’m aiming to read and blog as many of the rest as possible before the winner is announced on 4 July. I hope (expect, even) to discover some extraordinary stories.

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