Tagshort fiction

A Kind of Compass: ‘The Unintended’ by Gina Apostol

This cracker of a story appears in A Kind of Compass, a new anthology of “stories on distance” edited by Belinda McKeon and published by Dublin-based Tramp Press. ‘The Unintended’ begins with Magsalin, a translator and mystery writer from the Philippines, pondering her task:

For the mystery writer, it is not enough to mourn the dead. One must also study the exit wounds, invite the coroner to tea, cloud the mind with ulterior motives, typically in triplicate. In addition, pay credit card bills for the grieving, if such bills are extant.

(I was sold on the story from that opening paragraph, to be honest.)

We then move outwards: in the past, Virginie falls for a filmmaker named Luca Brasi, and they have a dream romance, at least to begin with. In the present, the Brasis’ daughter Chiara has hired Magsalin to be her translator as she, like her father, makes a film about the Philippine-American war (though for Chiara this seems to be as much a quest to find out what made her marriage fall apart). Along the way, Magasalin has cause to observe the many strata of distance between photographs of war and its reality:

there is the eye of the victim, the captured,

who may in turn be belligerent, bystander, blameless, blamed – at the very least here, too, there are subtle shifts in pathetic balance;

there is the eye of the colonised viewing their captured history in the distance created by time;

there is the eye of the captor, the soldier, who has just wounded the captured;

And so it continues, layer on layer.

There are other types of distance in ‘The Unintended’: between Chiara and her parents; between the beginning and end of her parents’ relationship; between Magsalin and Chiara – and between reader and event, because all we have in the end is a broken-up narrative filtered through the viewpoint (perhaps even in part written by) Magsalin. Distance all the way down.

One thing I do know: I need to read more of Gina Apostol’s work.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

A Kind of Compass (2015), ed. Belinda McKeon, Tramp Press paperback

BBC National Short Story Award 2015: the result

The 2015 BBC National Short Story Award has gone to Jonathan Buckley for his story ‘Briar Road’. Mark Haddon was the runner-up, for ‘Bunny’.

Well, what can I say? That result is almost the exact opposite of my own personal preference. It never ceases to amaze me how different opinions on fiction can be.  Still, congratulations to all.

Anthology details (Foyles affiliate link)

The BBC National Short Story Award 2015, Comma Press paperback

This is part of a series of posts about the shortlist for the 2015 BBC National Short Story Award.

BBC National Short Story Award 2015: my pick of the shortlist

This is part of a series of posts about the shortlist for the 2015 BBC National Short Story Award.

Okay, I’ve read through the shortlist, so it’s time to choose my personal winner…

If the BBC National Short Story Award were mine to give, I’d hand it to Jeremy Page. ‘Do it Now, Jump the Table’ is the story that I enjoyed the most, but I think it’s also the most successful.

My runner-up would either be Hilary Mantel or Frances Leviston. There are aspects of both their stories that work well for me, but I don’t think they quite have the unity of Page’s.

We’ll find out the winning story on Tuesday night.

Anthology details (Foyles affiliate link)

The BBC National Short Story Award 2015, Comma Press paperback

BBC National Short Story Award 2015: ‘Do it Now, Jump the Table’ by Jeremy Page

This is part of a series of posts about the shortlist for the 2015 BBC National Short Story Award.

Thom goes to visit his girlfriend Susan’s parents in rural Wales. On the way there, he remembers Susan’s warnings about them sometimes walking around the house with little (if anything) to cover their modesty, and being free about touching each other. These colour the way Thom approaches the meeting, making an already awkward situation even more so. But Thom finds his feet with time – or at least he thinks he does…

I really enjoyed this story. Page’s humour really hits the mark, and I don’t mind admitting that this went a long way. There’s also a lightness of touch here which I don’t really find in the other stories, and it works well. But the heart of Page’s tale is the sense of Thom entering unfamiliar territory – a household and family whose conventions and codes he does not understand – and trying to find his way. It’s sharp and funny… good stuff.

Listen to a reading of ‘Do it Now, Jump the Table’

Anthology details (Foyles affiliate link)

The BBC National Short Story Award 2015, Comma Press paperback

BBC National Short Story Award 2015: ‘The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher’ by Hilary Mantel

This is part of a series of posts about the shortlist for the 2015 BBC National Short Story Award.

Perhaps the single best-known short story that would have been eligible for this year’s award, purely on account of its being the title story of a collection by such a high-profile author (oh, and perhaps the storm-in-a-teacup that went on in the media over the subject matter, I suppose). Mantel imagines the occasion in August 1983 when Margaret Thatcher went into hospital in Windsor for eye surgery. Her narrator lives within sight of the hospital, and receives a visitor who is at first assumed to be a photographer – though it soon becomes apparent that he’s after a different kind of shot.

It’s been a recurring theme of my engagement with the shortlisted stories that I’ve found the tone of the narration a little jarring (at least to begin with) in the context of what the stories were doing. It’s the same here: Mantel’s protagonist looks back on these events calmly, with a certain sense of being above it all (“Picture first the street where she breathed her last. It is a quiet street, sedate, shaded by old trees…”). This seems to work as something of a wink to the reader: you know that Thatcher wasn’t assassinated in real life, but this is fiction, so all bets are off, okay? But I also find that it takes me out of the moment a little. All the same, the interplay between narrator and (would-be?) sniper brings humour, then tension.

Listen to a reading of ‘The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher’

Anthology details (Foyles affiliate link)

The BBC National Short Story Award 2015, Comma Press paperback

BBC National Short Story Award 2015: ‘Broderie Anglaise’ by Frances Leviston

This is part of a series of posts about the shortlist for the 2015 BBC National Short Story Award.

Invited to her cousin’s wedding – but “not maid of honour, not even a bridesmaid” – a young woman determines to take a private revenge by wearing a dress that will subtly outshine the bride and annoy that side of the family. Unable to find something suitable in the shops, she decides to make her own in secret. The trouble is that, no matter what method she tries, she can’t quite get the hang of it.

There were times when I found Leviston’s first-person narration a little over-egged (that is, more like a writer’s voice than a character’s), especially in comparison to the snappier rhythms of the contemporary dialogue. But I guess you could also take the view that it creates a contrast between the narrator’s interior and exterior life, in a story which is all about breaking down emotional barriers. The protagonist’s relationship with her mother is transformed through the act of making this dress, leading to the kind of symbolic patterning for which I always have a soft spot in fiction.

Listen to a reading of ‘Broderie Anglaise’

Anthology details (Foyles affiliate link)

The BBC National Short Story Award 2015, Comma Press paperback

BBC National Short Story Award 2015: ‘Bunny’ by Mark Haddon

This is part of a series of posts about the shortlist for the 2015 BBC National Short Story Award.

I was not much enamoured of this story at all, I’m sorry to say. Birdy Wallis is a morbidly obese twentysomething who finds the scope of his world contracting, until he’s befriended by Leah, an old acquaintance from school. The tale is one of two characters searching for an emotional connection: Birdy stuck in his house, and Leah who never followed her friends to the big city.

There’s some effective use of rhythm and repetition in Haddon’s prose, and (for example) the opening passage detailing Birdy’s excesses is appropriately enticing and repulsive at the same time. But ‘Birdy’ ends up falling awkwardly between several stools: it’s a character study that doesn’t get under the skin of its characters enough for my liking; its realist approach points towards social commentary, but ultimately it doesn’t seem to say much; it has a touch of the macabre that doesn’t gel with the rest, and leaves the story’s ending unearned. Frustrating.

Listen to a reading of ‘Bunny’

Anthology details (Foyles affiliate link)

The BBC National Short Story Award 2015, Comma Press paperback

BBC National Short Story Award 2015: ‘Briar Road’ by Jonathan Buckley

It’s BBC National Short Story Award time again, and they’ve kindly sent me an copy of the shortlist anthology, so I can do a story-by-story blog of the list. I’ll be going through each of the five stories, before the winner is announced on Tuesday. It’s been a good few years since I’ve done one of these, so I’m excited to get started…

First up, Jonathan Buckley’s ‘Briar Road’, which begins with its narrator observing the house she’s about to visit. If I’m honest, some of the imagery here feels a little too crisp and studied (“Every sill gleams like milk”); but this woman’s occupation and purpose eventually justify her narrative voice. She is a psychic, come to help a family whose daughter has gone missing; the way she describes it, her talent is like picking up traces that others wouldn’t notice in the manner of someone with a more acute sense of  smell or taste, so it’s only natural that she should be finely observant, and her voice rather measured.

‘Briar Road’ is a story of familial tensions being revealed, albeit in an understated way. The trouble for me is that, on the one hand, I find it short on ambiguity (although Buckley doesn’t spell everything out, you can infer pretty clearly); but, on the other, the sheen of the prose creates a distancing effect which lessens the story’s emotional impact, despite its directness. I find ‘Briar Road’ fine as it goes; but I would have wished for more.

Listen to a reading of ‘Briar Road’

Anthology details (Foyles affiliate link)

The BBC National Short Story Award 2015, Comma Press paperback

Learning to read Kazuo Ishiguro

Recently I’ve started to read The Buried Giant, another novel that I thought might make the cut for next week’s Goldsmiths Prize shortlist. Reading Kazuo Ishiguro has very much been a learning process for me, and one that’s been documented on the blog – so I thought I’d take a look back…

NocturnesThe first Ishiguro book that I read was his novella collection, Nocturnes, shortly after its publication in 2009. Reading my review back now makes me wince – not because I didn’t get along with the book, but because I’m not happy with how the review turned out. For one thing, it’s snarkier than I would generally write – and snark, fun though it may be, is rarely conducive to careful thought. Sure enough, I did something that I now hate to see in discussion of books: I came up against something unexpected, and dismissed it out of hand without really thinking about it. I put my own terms of engagement ahead of the book’s.

I was under the assumption at the time that Ishiguro was a writer of transparent realism, but now I’m not so sure. And that means I’m on shaky ground treating something of his as ‘unrealistic’, especially without stopping to think what that means, and why the fiction might be that way. This is not to say that I would inevitably like Nocturnes more if I read it now; but I do think there was something fundamental that I didn’t (couldn’t?) appreciate about it.


At the time I wasn’t especially keen to read Ishiguro again, and it took a few years before I felt the time was right. I went for The Remains of the Day (1989), and was clearly much more receptive to what Ishiguro was doing. Yet I wonder if I didn’t still miss something. My review of Remains is framed as saying, “I can see the same techniques here as I did in Nocturnes, but in this book they work.” In other words, I was still reading from that assumption of transparent realism. Now, granted, transparent realism is what the novel looks like; and I think it’s fair to say that Ishiguro’s fiction has a ‘default’ voice. But, still…

I gather that The Buried Giant is a little different from Ishiguro’s work, and certainly it has garnered a variety of puzzled reactions, which is partly what leads me to suspect that there may be some thread in his writing that I’ve not yet appreciated. Perhaps what I need to do is step back and consider the individual writer – to see his books as Kazuo Ishiguro books first and foremost.

Book details (Foyles affiliate links)

The Buried Giant (2015) by Kazuo Ishiguro, Faber & Faber hardback

Nocturnes (2009) by Kazuo Ishiguro, Faber & Faber paperback

The Remains of the Day (1989) by Kazuo Ishiguro, Faber & Faber paperback

First impressions of Kafka: The Stoker

I gather that ‘The Stoker’ was the first chapter in Kafka’s unfinished novel Amerika. I’m sure I’ll read that in the fullness of time, and I’ll be intrigued to see where it goes. For now, though, the experience of reading ‘The Stoker’ feels complete in itself.

As with ‘The Judgement’, we begin in what seems fairly straightforward territory. After fatheringa  child with a  maid, seventeen-year-old Karl Rossmann has been sent across the Atlantic by his parents. He is about to disembark at New York when he realises he has left his umbrella somewhere in the ship. So he goes below decks to find it, becomes lost, and gets into a conversation with the ship’s stoker. Michael Hofmann suggests in his introduction that Kafka can often be funny, and I certainly found that with the rambling dialogue between Karl and the stoker – not so much from particular lines as a cumulative sense of absurdity.

Karl eventually learns that the stoker is about to be fired, because his Romanian boss doesn’t care for Germans like him. Karl decides to go with the stoker to see the ship’s captain, and explain his concerns; and so Karl loses a little control over his own story, as it were – he’s making the decisions, but in the context of what’s happened to someone else.

In the captain’s chamber, the stoker is increasingly sidelined: at first, he is not allowed in the room, placing the onus on Karl to be his advocate. When the stoker is allowed back in, his boss is waiting outside, witnesses in tow, making the whole thing seem a charade. Then one of the captain’s confidants announces that he is Karl’s uncle, much to Karl’s surprise; the stoker is lost amidst all this, and Karl can no longer pretend what is happening. My sense of reading ‘The Stoker’ – quite like ‘The Judgement’, actually – is of a ‘story’ being told from a distance, such that the reader (and Kafka’s protagonist) can see only the echoes. And despite (or perhaps because of) everything, it feels strangely like a parade.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

‘The Stoker’ (1913) by Franz Kafka, in Metamorphosis and Other Stories (2007), tr. Michael Hofmann, Penguin Modern Classics paperback

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