I go through phases with short stories, sometimes they are just the ticket, sometimes they are not long enough and I'm in the mood to settle down for the long haul with a novel...talking of which I have hesitated to add The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (800+ pages) to my 'Reading' list over here >>> in case I crashed out at page 200 as per The Quincunx recently. Not so, I am loving it and am hopefully in for the home run now.
But I have also been enjoying Katherine Mansfield's short stories in recent weeks, and so when the suggestion came in that I read this year's short list for the BBC National Short Story Award, and then choose my own unofficial winner prior to the official announcement tomorrow...well it seemed like a good idea.
Selected from 438 entries, this year's shortlist is:
- 'Briar Road' by Jonathan Buckley - A psychic investigates the case of a missing teenager.
- 'Bunny' by Mark Haddon - A morbidly obese young man makes an unlikely friend as his world shrinks around him.
- 'Broderie Anglaise' by Frances Leviston - A tale of tensions between a mother and a daughter.
- 'The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher' by Hilary Mantel - An intruder hovers at a window hoping to catch a shot at Margaret Thatcher.
- 'Do It Now, Jump The Table' by Jeremy Page - A young man meets his girlfriend's parents for the first time - not knowing that they are nudists.
But what use is a panel of one for a bit of lively debate. This year's judges Allan Little, Di Spiers, Ian Rankin, Sarah Hall and Tash Aw will have been having some great conversations, so I co-opted the Happy Campers, fresh from their spell-binding session with Hilary Mantel at Budleigh Literary Festival (report and news of The Mirror and the Light to come later this week, trust me you won't want to miss their thoughts). We all duly read the stories and then convened for lunch at Cafe Liaison in Tavistock. I always feel a but odd sitting in there...it was our design showroom premises for twenty years, with my little quilt shop upstairs, and there I was seated in the exact same spot where Bookhound's secretary used to sit.
Greetings and pleasantries out of the way, we all held our breath before saying almost in unison 'I know who I want to win..' and how fascinating to explore all those issues about 'favouritism' that we often level at prize juries when, having done it, nothing could be further from the truth.
Every story engaged us in its own way. Characters we identified with, often not the same one for each of us; stories that were spare on detail and made us think, others that made us laugh or had us biting our lips with sadness, or tension, or acute embarrassment on the part of a character, others that asked us to do a little bit of work filling in the gaps.
Briar Road was an interesting read for me in the light of my recent encounter with Beyond Black; a missing girl, a clairvoyant seeing more than she feels she need reveal as the family sit around the table for a seance in varying moods of belief, or lack of. The family dynamics, as in several of the stories, yielded a fruitful source of discussion, as well as some speculation about what the future might hold for each beyond the final paragraph.
One of our number, famed for being able to eat and not gain an ounce (not me) and nicknamed Gannet, took very kindly to the first paragraph of Mark Haddon's Bunny with its journey through Sweets We Have Known. Admitting that she would enjoy all of them though with some discussion about Reece's Pieces, a new one for all us amidst the Wispas and the Crunchies. The upshot for Bunny is a bed-bound obesity with its social isolation and loneliness until an old school friend arrives to care for him.
Quite why and how had the mother and daughter reached such an impasse in their relationship in Broderie Anglaise we weren't quite sure, and maybe it is the poet in Frances Leviston that leaves those things unsaid. We spent some time deciphering the signposts scattered through the narrative as the daughter finally reveals the hand-sewn dress she had been keeping a secret, resisting her mother's attempts to help. The dynamics gave us much to talk about.
The stories were read anonymously by the judges, though that can't have been easy given the publicity that surrounded the publication of The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher' by Hilary Mantel. Brouhaha sums it up. Windsor is about to become as infamous as Dallas as the marksman lines up to take his shot at the then Prime Minister, and from the window of an innocent woman's home. We all love and admire Hilary Mantel and the question was could we set that aside and look at the story for itself...was it to be our winner...
Read 'Do It Now, Jump The Table' by Jeremy Page and brace for a moment that might truly make you cringe. Your toes might also be curling with embarrassment, ours were, but we were roaring with laughter too as the boyfriend finds himself discovering a new side to his girlfriend on a weekend visit to her parents in rural Wales. To conform or not to conform to their naturist tendencies...and you might never look at carrots heaved from the ground in the same way either.
Decision time as the tables around us has changed occupancy twice at least and we were still sitting there pondering our options.
Of the short story, chair of judges Allan Little says this in his introduction to this short list...
Stories - long or short - are how we make sense, how we interrogate ourselves , and come to know ourselves. I have been thrilled to find the British short story in such good nick.'
And I think the three of us would concur with that. We enjoyed every story but ultimately felt there was one that had achieved the most and come the nearest to that statement... it was time to reveal to each other the story we each felt deserved to win, and with not a word of dissent we all declared our unofficial winner with one voice...
Bunny by Mark Haddon.
It was the one that had engaged us on every level, elicited our sympathies, our understanding and admiration, all of which overrode any sense of discomfort and prejudice we may have felt reluctant to acknowledge about a much misunderstood condition. It offered us a little window onto a hidden life these days often further misrepresented by fly-on-the-wall TV documentaries; a life that would be so easy to scorn and ridicule and apportion blame for whilst not seeing what may lie beneath and behind the situation. Once read it would be hard to forget Bunny or his friend Leah.
We now can't wait to discover the judges' choice, to be announced on Front Row BBC Radio 4 Tuesday October 6th (programme starts at 7.15pm) and in the meantime, and for the next few weeks, you can listen to each story as a BBC download here.
P.S. A date for your diaries...Happy Camper Angela (yes, the one who can eat a sweetshop and not gain an ounce) will be featuring on the Antiques Roadshow on Sunday October 11th from Royal William Yard in Plymouth. Look out for woman with interesting embroidered sampler.