‘Three strong, one decent, one weak – that’s not too bad’ – The BBC National Short Story Award 2014

bbc2014The writers amongst our readers will, no doubt, be keenly aware just how high-profile this particular short story award is, but in case there’s any doubt, this year’s shortlist lineup ought to highlight the glitziness of the competition to everybody else: four of the five shortlistees – Tessa Hadley, Lionel Shriver, Zadie Smith and Rose Tremain – are, if not household names, then names that are jostling just outside your front-door, while the fifth, Francesca Rhydderch, isn’t all that far behind: Rhydderch did, after all, take this year’s Welsh Book of the Year gong for her 2013 debut novel, The Rice Paper Diaries. We’re not, then, looking at super-talented unknowns, but at an Award that’s reeling in, and rewarding, the great and the good of the UK (and international) literary scene. Is that a laudable thing? While we like to see emerging and unknown writers muscle their way to the podium, we’re also pleased to see the elite crew get down and dirty with the rest of us, and we’re happy about the greater publicity given to the form by the success of Smith & Co.

So, as is probably obvious, we’re looking at an all-female line-up. While, as interested followers of the VIDA counts, we’re happy to see a plenitude of women in print, we would still have liked to see more diversity, and of ethnicity as well as gender. The stories themselves, though, are as eclectic a bunch as you’d hope to encounter: from love stories to psychological family dramas, from an exploration of mortality to another of bigotry, they have little in common but, in the main, a tendency towards description and poignant introspection that belies the, perhaps, starker wit of your George Saunders. Which is to say, bar Smith, it all felt a little old-fashioned – but that’s not a criticism, as there’s little that irks us more than a harking after the fashionable.

Tessa Hadley’s ‘Bad Dreams’ is a creepy, quiet, sideways look at repressed (and released) terror and worry in an eerie domestic setting. A little girl, having had a nightmare, wakes and upsets the living room furniture in such a way that her mother, also roaming the house before dawn, interprets the disarray quite wrongly, to the secret detriment of her marriage. Silence and silencing, a horror of the future, the obscure codes that haunt us through language printed and implied – it’s thematically unsettling, and it plays upon the uncanny, not only in the plot itself, but in the not-quite-mirroring of action and thought that emerges between mother and child as they each navigate their respective lonesome scenes. This story has a lingering effect, not dissimilar to a good ghost story: it begs to be reread.

Smith’s ‘Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets’ is an entirely different affair: a drag queen, Miss Adele, goes shopping for a new corset, a trip that goes wrong, as she finds herself (or assumes herself to be) the victim of prejudice. It’s the least introspective piece of the five, as Smith, much like in her novels, allows the action to carry the story’s weight; what we learn, we learn mostly from dialogue, but the dialogue itself is snappy and evocative, and the story is brutally sad. Rhydderch’s ‘The Taxidermist’s Daughter’ we found a little more heavy-handed; while the quirkiness and detail of the taxidermy industry give it a particular hook, the story itself (a family in mourning; teen love gone wrong; revenge attempts) felt like familiar territory, and we weren’t wholly taken by the style, which seemed to rely too heavily on verisimilitude of setting rather than on individual characterization. Still, we preferred it to Rose Tremain’s (apparently semi-autobiographical) offering, ‘The American Lover’, a love-story told in flashback form by a convalescent writer to her Portuguese maid, in which the old Show-Don’t-Tell mantra seems to have been utterly discarded; this is an exercise in recitation that lacks what we might call layering: the story’s handed to us, and there appears to be little behind the surface to lend it greater weight or any ambiguity of interpretation.

The winner – don’t forget, this book anthologizes a competition’s results – was, however, Shriver, whose ‘Kilifi Creek’, like Hadley’s story, warrants a careful reread before its full impact kicks in. Ostensibly, it tells us the life-story – in one extended section and several truncated summaries – of Liana, a girl who barely cheats death in a Kenyan creek. The opening section is puzzling in the way that Henry James or Ford Maddox Ford can be – multiple clauses, a fudging of events, a muddling of timelines and causalities – before we settle into a straightforward account of Liana’s brief stay in Kenya, the way she imposed on her unwilling hosts, the way she almost drowns. Shriver then skips us through the girl’s adult life, before ending, spectacularly, on Liana’s actual death. If narrative fiction is said, post-Freud, to be end-oriented – and this story is no exception, particularly insofar as it ends at the moment of death itself – then this end wrenches us right back to the beginning, as we re-contextualize not only Liana’s previous close calls, but also Shriver’s cagey opening, in which we see Liana’s character sharply analyzed and criticized: now, we want to know, do we agree? The end, here, loops us back to the start in a cyclic interpretive loop – it’s a story, then, that demands, as does Hadley’s, to be revisited. Shriver’s narrator is observant, swooping between detached assessments and close approximations of Liana’s state of mind; the story, though not overly short, draws us along by virtue of the in-built drive of the near-fatal swim. If we’re honest, we’d have tossed the trophy Hadley’s direction, but Shriver’s not an unworthy winner. Had it been a three-way tie with Smith, we’d have shrugged: why not?

Any Cop?: Three strong, one decent, one weak – that’s not too bad, and the three strong ones are certainly worth a read (or several). We’re intrigued by the fact that these are writers mostly known for their novels – what does that tell us about the status of the short story today? Is it on the rise? We also like, as ever, that this Award allows for (though does not require) longer stories, which opens the field of entries wider than do most story competitions, including the BBC’s biggest local rival, the Sunday Times Prize. If you want to see a comparable anthology, though, check out Ireland’s Davy Byrnes Stories 2014 for what, we reckon, is a stronger and more imaginative list. But, like we said, this one’s still worth a read – three good ones aren’t to be sniffed at.

 

Valerie O’Riordan


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