A fantastic introduction to the work of five very talented writers – The BBC National Short Story Award 2011 Anthology

Its that time of the year again: one of Britains swankiest and most lucrative prizes for short fiction, the BBC National Short Story Award – managed by the BBC in partnership with Booktrust – has just announced its winner and runner-up, and Comma Press has bundled all five short-listed stories in a rather fancy-looking pocket-sized paperback. (The stories were also broadcast on BBC Radio 4, but I avoided them because I knew Id be getting my filthy hands on the book and I didnt want spoilers spoiling my spoil. I probably missed out, there – more fool me.) Anyway, heres my review of last years anthology, if youre up for some comparing-and-contrasting. Meanwhile, youre (hopefully) wondering: whats this years crop like? Id say solid – quite stylistically varied, if not especially formally daring; theres a focus on relationship breakdowns and a lack of communication; there’s two road-trips, one boat non-trip, and two scientific discovery-type stories; and theyre all rather character-driven. Each of the stories deals with love in some form; I would think that this wasnt a deliberate consideration or preoccupation on the judges part, but it does mean that the anthology feels thematically coherent, which is a rather nice detail for the casual (non-judging) reader. So, it’s about time I mentioned who the short-listed authors actually are: MJ Hyland, Alison MacLeod, Jon McGregor, KJ Orr and DW Wilson.

So! Going by order of appearance, lets start with MJ Hyland. Rag Time is actually an adapted section of her novel-in-progress, but you wouldnt know it to read the story; as short fiction, its perfectly self-contained and coherent and has a blunt emotional resonance that was difficult to read, but was very compelling, in a Larry David sort of way. The narrator, James – though its not clear if this is his actual name or a pseudonym – and his wife, Trudy, have scammed their way on board a cruise-ship moored in Sydney Harbour. For Trudy, tired of her drab, stalled life, the liner is as good as it gets: shes got this long-standing fantasy of sex in a luxurious bed in an on-board penthouse suite, and now shes got a chance to make it happen. Posing as prospective passengers, the couple plan to bribe the purser into allowing them brief access to a cabin, where theyll do the long-awaited deed. I wont give away the ending, because part of the strength of the story lies in how Hyland builds tension around the will-they-wont-they plot; the husbands simultaneous recognition of his wifes delusion and his desire to please her mean that the whole thing tips on a knife-edge of almost excruciating empathy. Hylands prose is direct and simple, and she is, as usual, master of the significant detail (Trudys changing accent, the boy who dusts the tops of the doors). The crumbling relationship; its horribly awkward and desperate intimacies; the hyper-real, hollow, opulence of the ship itself – its almost difficult to read, and all the better for that – and an excellent taster of the novel-to-come.

Alison MacLeods The Heart of Denis Noble fictionalises the life of real-life Denis Noble, a systems biologist whose work used computer models to make the first virtual human heart. MacLeods Noble has had a heart attack and is undergoing a transplant; as he drifts in and out of consciousness in the run-up to and aftermath of the surgery, he recalls his early research into the functions of the heart and his then-foundering relationship with his future wife, Ella, an English student attending DH Lawrences obscenity trial. MacLeods concerned with the heart and with love, and with how and where the two intersect, and so the biological detail works well alongside snippets of Lawrence. The two time-scales of the piece – Nobles present, in surgery, and his past, rushing about between his flat and an abattoir and his research lab – segue beautifully between one another; MacLeod captures the dreamy confusion of pre-op sedation brilliantly. And her attention to detail is superb – Nobles descriptions of the intricacies of the heart and its ionic operations – its potassium channels – are both fascinating and gorgeous. This is one of the longer stories on the list, but its not overlong, and its a very lyrical and absorbing read – and the ending, though (I think) pretty implausible, works nicely, underscoring a rather serious (though lovely) read with a good dollop of humour.

Next up is Jon McGregor, making his second appearance in a row on the Awards shortlist; this years piece, Wires’, is pretty different to last years sad and claustrophobic, I Thought You Should Know. Wires is narrated by Emily Wilkinson, whos just been hit in the windscreen, on the motorway, by what she thinks is a sugar beet. The story is her shocked post-accident monologue, as she pulls over, unhurt, onto the hard-shoulder and waits for roadside assistance. So its light on action, but heavy on contemplation, as Emilys thoughts ricochet from her social network status to her dodgy relationship with an older, condescending, PhD student, her degree at Hull, and her irritation with the two do-gooders whove stopped to help her out. Its a witty and irreverent piece of fiction that nevertheless handles the complexities of Emilys life and relationships with sensitivity and consideration. Its stylistically dissimilar to McGregors recent work – less experimental, perhaps, but more immediately engaging and colloquial – and this makes his forthcoming collection seem even more enticing, as it gives a greater idea of his range as a writer. And, as it happens, ‘Wires’, just like ‘I Thought You Should Know’ last year, has been named runner-up in this year’s Award.

KJ Orrs The Human Circadian Pacemaker is a different beast altogether; here, the narrators husband has just come back from a manned space mission and she has to watch as he adjusts – or fails to adjust – to life back on Earth. His body-clock shot, hes dislocated physically and emotionally from ordinary life, while Eleanor, the narrator, whos crossed the Atlantic to set up home with him, has to wait and see if their life together can still work. The success of this story hinges, like Hylands, on the small details that define a relationship – sleep patterns, patience, a quick, tight hug. The astronauts interaction with his fellow crew-members is wonderfully handled – the desperate camaraderie of people who dont know how to resume normal life – and you cant beat a set of nicknames that include Corpse and Shrink Fit. Its a low-key, contemplative story, with plenty of tenderness and anxiety thrown in; not the most unusual of the short listed pieces, but very carefully assembled and quietly powerful at that.

And, finally, DW Wilson, whose alphabetical position in our list coincides conveniently with the good old best-till-last routine. ‘The Dead Roads’, this year’s Award-winner, is the story of a road-trip, a post-adolescence near-catastrophe of sexual tension, complicated friendships and stalled love. Duncan (the narrator), his best friend, north-born shitkcker and lone ranger Animal Brooks, and Vic, Duncans sort-of sometime girlfriend, are off down the Trans-Canada highway on one final outing before Vic returns to university. The storys slight, as far as plot’s concerned – the trio meet a peculiar Native American kid pulling gas, they strike camp on a hillside, and Animal narrowly avoids death in a hit-and-run – but really its a poignant elegy to almost-lost love as Duncan sees his chance to stay with Vic slipping ever faster out of reach. This was the most manic and linguistically distinct of the selection – Animals got that hurting lurch, like a scrappers swag, and the horizon glowed from the park lights and the treetops resembled hundreds of heated needles.The Dead Roads starts off all raucous and demented, but by the end, the huge unspoken burden of Duncans feelings for Vic give it an emotional depth that makes you ache – like Denis Johnson at his best.

Any Cop? All five are strong, well-written stories, and different enough from one another that each ought to remain memorable when you‘re done with the anthology – so that‘s good. And although Im not sure that any of them will stay with me the way Sarah Halls Butchers Perfume did in 2010, I think Wilson’s was a worthy winner – I’d also give a shout-out to McLeod’s piece, to which I’ve found myself returning in the week since I read it. Overall, this is a fantastic introduction to the work of five very talented writers, all of whom except Orr have collections and/or novels out already (and I expect Orr will be joining them before too long). Its well worth a gander and Ill bet that youll be searching out those back catalogues pretty quickly after youve raced through this little number.

Valerie O’Riordan

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