I read three stories last week that were judged by someone to be worthy of note. Two that were from the 2012 Costa Short Story Award (winner not yet announced) and a third that was a winner I randomly picked from a newspaper competition. I can’t call myself a published author, so I may not be qualified to judge in this capacity. What I am, however, is a reader. And, as a reader, this is what I thought of them:
A Week Off at Christmas – Winner of the Newcastle Herald (AU) Summer Short Story Writing Competition
This was my least favourite story of the three. In part because it is set in a section of the world that I am not familiar with, on a topic that I am not really invested in (the theme was ‘from the valley to the sea’) and at only 1,000 words – quite short. Plus, the thought of Christmas on a hot beach seems wrong to me!
However, the language was evocative and the descriptive phrases did provide me with the necessary tools to imagine the ‘salty tang of the ocean’ and ‘hot pong of creosote timber and squashed bait’. I especially liked the image she painted of children with their heads poking out of car windows ‘like exotic flowers, hair whipping and billowing’ and the view of the bay – ‘its white arc of beach like a bite out of a summer melon’.
For such a short story the author chose two narrative voices – the Mum and Dad of five children, travelling to their holiday home. I’m not sure I really appreciated this although I can understand the reasoning for it: Dad was focused mainly on the present – the journey – whilst Mum provided a window into the family’s situation and history providing context.
Perhaps because of the necessity of the word count I thought there was quite a lot of ‘telling’, although what was shown was beautifully written.
I didn’t read the other runners up, but I might – just to see how they compare to this.
Don’t Try This at Home – short-listed in the 2012 Costa Coffee Shorty Story Award
This story certainly had an intriguing first line and plenty of pace. It opens with the words: ‘I cut my boyfriend in half’. The narrative conflict increases with every relationship status: ‘I sliced my fiancé into quarters’ and ‘I diced my husband to pieces’. As such, the first person perspective provides lots of tension and snappy drama.
I especially liked the contrast of the final few lines in the story – which offers the reader a glimpse into the more emotional part of the narrator, as oppose to the matter-of-fact approach taken with the rest of the words – ‘Sometimes I miss him. I see him look out the window, wondering where part of him went. I stand beside him, handing him tea. And I wonder if someone somewhere is doing the same, looking out of windows, longing for the part of him that’s with me’.
However, it’s that same voice that makes this story awkward and difficult to process. They tell the story in such short, snappy pieces that you end up feeling very much like her husbands do – not sure of who is who. Either this is a very smart narrative device, or else it’s a somewhat jarring coincidence. The repetition of both action and the words to describe the situation give the story a rhythmical edge that is as disconcerting as the topic of slicing your partner in half, more than once.
Yet, I don’t like it. For me, there is no clear motivation or true conflict. The character is flat on the page – only telling of her state and never revealing the nub of the issue: why? It doesn’t quite live up to the promise that the first line delivers. Certainly there is a chasm of difference between the characters from start to finish (if only in the fact that her partner multiplies more than once), but I don’t really care about them. What I really wanted was to understand what it was to have more than one fiancé in the room, but such complications are not explored enough for me.
As much as I appreciated the concept of this story, I can’t quite bring myself to enjoy it. But maybe that was the point…
Mown Grass – short-listed in the 2012 Costa Coffee Shorty Story Award
Now, this story is, for me, a true short story. It has a situation that automatically brings revelation (a death) and characters that the reader can judge, until, at last, the judgements are turned on their head and they are revealed for what they are. That isn’t to say that I typically enjoy stories like this. Don’t Try This at Home is much more up my street when it comes to genre, but Mown Grass…well, there’s just something about it that resonates.
I did find that it took a while to settle into the actual story. It begins with a widow, Kathleen, then brings in Robin – the dead husband – a couple of daughters and then, finally, the ‘other woman’: Mrs Robinson. I’m not sure if there was any relevance in naming her ‘Mrs Robinson’ but I certainly like the implication.
I still struggle to identify whose story this is, however. The over-riding viewpoint is omniscient: each character reveals a little more of the layers of the story but none appear to have centre-stage. This, I found confusing. Yet, it provides an excellent overview of the situation and back story that is required to make the final paragraph really hit home. Suddenly, Mrs Robinson isn’t who you expected her to be.
Throughout Kathleen and her daughters are portrayed as callous, gold-digging women who take Robin far too much for granted. Yet, in that final paragraph, it seems that Robin has been foolish twice over, for Mrs Robinson is revealed to be just as callous and jealous of Kathleen’s hold over her husband as Robin is over his need to be financially secure.
There is something satisfying about the sting in the tail of this story, and it made me smile when I reached the final words. I find that this is what I enjoy in a good tale in the end: an unexpected surprise.
It was quite nice to read other people’s fiction for a little while, and to consider what it was that made me relate to each of the stories in turn. I’m not sure I can quite pick out the ‘good’ from the ‘bad’ from a writer’s point of view as yet, but maybe with practice I’ll be able to learn to judge my own work with a better understanding of what it is I’m aiming for.