shining the spotlight on short story collections
Bristol Prize, 2013
“And then, he wonders if it ever happened at all. He thinks that memories make up stories sometimes. They deceive you.”
This is the sixth anthology of stories published from stories submitted to the Bristol Short Story Prize. This is an an annual international writing competition open to all published and unpublished, UK and non-UK based writers. Of forty short stories on the longlist, judges Ali Reynolds, Anna Bitten, Bidisha and Christopher Wakling then selected twenty to be published in this volume, with three writers receiving prizes for best first, second and third prizes. Deadline for entry to this annual prize is April of each year, with 2014 winners announced this year in October. The anthology is published in both print and e-book format, along with helpful bios and photos of the writers. Stories must be 4000 words, or less to be eligible.
First prize in the 2013 anthology went to Paul McMichael’s quite spectacular, inventive and, at times, wittily surreal story, The House on St John’s Avenue (subtitled: A short tale about love, family and theoretical cosmology). Each section of the story is presaged by a short précis, a la novels from centuries gone past. Here’s the first précis which sets the introduction: “Secrets unveiled. A startling moment involving a cuddly toy. Eric takes up novelty swearing.” Jack and Eric, a gay couple visit their friends Robert and his new lover Felipe. The great secret is that Robert and Felipe have decided to become parents through a surrogate mother. But there’s more to this story than a dinner party, friends getting together, memories of Robert’s previous lovers and what’s for dinner, because Robert and Felipe have discovered there’s a wormhole in their apartment. All very exciting, space time warp bending and all that – but it’s a secret they have to keep. What of the resultant fuss around such a discovery and then what if social services take the baby away? But underneath the surface banalities there’s a deeper question of what really happens to people when, literally, a wormhole opens in their lives and their homes, and just how much should you reveal to friends? Delightfully inventive.
Stories taking second and third prize are just as inventive. The Breakdown by Deepa Anappara, is set in India, and tells the story of Medha, a servant whose son has been killed by a leopard. The story mines her grief in subtle ways, while exposing the world she inhabits and the social strata to which she belongs. A sensitively told piece that is far-reaching and beautifully powerful.
Meanwhile, Anne Corlett’s story Why I waited, takes third prize, and takes us back to Greek gods times, and is narrated by Penelope, exploring her unsatisfactory marriage to Odysseus in a fever to explore the world, to leave, again and again, leaving Penelope pregnant and wondering, pondering through the years. A clever re-imagining of the story.
Other stories that caught my attention included two pieces set in hospitals. The brilliant stand-out Med City is by Ruth Corkhill. Set in a hospital ward, the unnamed narrator with her diseased hip, brings to life the sights and sounds and desperate days spent living in a hospital ward when you have a disease that isn’t easily cured and long-term becomes part of your vocabulary. The language is fast-paced, the tone sardonic, sad, world-weary, and the writing is compellingly gripping.
Equally brilliant is Rachel Peters’ When You Check into 3 West, told in the second person, and vaguely reminiscent of some of Lorrie Moore’s early stories. In this, the narrator finds herself in what appears to be a psychiatric ward:
The first day you will cry. You will cry because your wrist hurts, because you miss your bed, and you do not know what to expect here. You will cry because you are still here, because today is a day you did not plan on having and it does not feel like a gift. Because you let you husband down.
A story that gets to the heart of life in Ward 3, from the doctors, to the meds, to other patients and to a slow, unexpected healing.
Uschi Gatward’s quite memorable Pink Lemonade stays in my mind, and follows a group of mothers on an outing to the sea with two teachers. The unnamed narrator, mother of Katie, is rushed and harassed as she races to make the outing. The seawater is icy, rain threatens, but still there’s an attempt made at jollity, with another child celebrating a first birthday and a cake brought out for the occasion, despite the damp November day. A seemingly ordinary story – but the currents of hopeless desperation run through it all. Sometimes you snatch and snatch at happiness, but there’s nothing there to snatch at.
Sophie Stops the Clock by Alison Love is another beautifully memorable, yet bittersweet story that also reaches into the past for inspiration. It’s sometime in a past century and it’s so cold in Vienna that the fountains have been drained to stop the pipes from cracking. Baroness Sophie Rofrano watches her maid bustle around her room, while ruminating on a time in her past on her husband, Oktavian, who was once passionately drawn to and in love with another woman. But the past doesn’t always die with the days that run into each other, and there are times when it’s necessary to literally try to stop the clock.
About the reviewer: Arja Salafranca has published two collections of poetry, A Life Stripped of Illusions and The Fire in which we Burn. Her third is forthcoming from Modjaji Books/Dye Hard Press in 2014. Her debut collection of fiction The Thin Line, was published in 2010. She has twice won the Sanlam Award. She is the lifestyle and arts editor at The Sunday Independent.