Judging by last year’s competition, I oughtn’t to have tried to predict the outcome of the BBC National Short Story Award (the judges picked one of my least favourites). But Cynan Jones was a runaway winner this year, standing head and shoulders above the competition.
Jones’ ‘The Edge of the Shoal‘ is a pared-down tale of survival. Our protagonist slips out one day for a spot of river fishing but ends up fighting for his life after the weather turns. Like the titular fish separated from its shoal, he seems to enjoy his own company until it is all he is stuck with.
Short stories seem to be the perfect medium for life-or-death scenarios (e.g. Hemingway’s ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’). Their compact length keeps the worst possible outcomes in play throughout the story, whereas a novella-plus treatment of someone on their last legs would either find itself running into credibility issues or be forced to dilute the action with subplots of flashbacks. Certainly, Jones had me gripped to the very end (for once, an ambiguous ending works rather than feeling like a let-down).
There is juxtaposition of tenderness and violence – the description of fish scales, the imagery of his wife’s hair in the rushing river – that lends weight to both. His resolve and motives to survive are presented with psychological minimalism; there is a certain detachment to Jones’ third-person viewpoint yet this strengthens his protagonist’s isolation our identification with him.
Helen Oyeyemi’s ‘If a book is locked there’s probably a good reason for that don’t you think?‘ is my pick for second-place. Laconic young New Yorker Eva becomes the locus of office politics when her diary is stolen by hostile co-workers.
Interestingly, events are related from a second-person perspective, which lends a kind of immediacy and importance to what otherwise might seem fairly routine events. This keeps the focus squarely on Eva as a source of intrigue, while also establishing the protagonist as someone apart from the rest (her job is to evaluate anonymised colleagues’ financial worth, a fraught enterprise).
Plus it has the only memorable last line in the shortlist.
In third place…’The Waken‘ by Jenni Fagan. Jessie attends her father’s funeral on a remote Scottish isle and realises ‘not one thing in this island was sorry to see him go.’ She is keen to move to a city and, like the islanders, she seems relieved by her father’s death.
What could have been a familiar, forgettable story of small-town rituals and alienation is given extra dimensions by its magical elements, which are only hinted at to begin with (shades of ‘The Wicker Man’ here). Of all the stories, it has an ending that prompts us to revisit what went before.
Will Eaves’ ‘Murmur‘, inspired by the blackmailing of Alan Turing by a male prostitute, and Turing’s horrific punishment for his being gay, felt the most comfortable and safe of all these stories. Everything is passed to us through ‘Alec’, and Alec can’t help but analyse everything in terms of mathematics and chemistry. Thus it seemed to me to wobble on the verge of caricature.
The highlights are Alec’s waspish confrontations with his psychologist – ‘a look of point-missingly clever satisfaction on his face’ – and his apoplexy at being asked to explain his feelings. As he puts it, a child is someone who persists in asking ‘why’ we feel the way we do, and won’t be satisfied with the facts to hand. A neat encapsulation of a worldview.
Finally, ‘The Collector’ by Benjamin Markovits. Robin, a lifelong collector of assorted bric-a-brac, mourns his unsentimental wife Amy and is haunted by his inability to clearly remember her last words. For the most part, this is a character study in the kind of person who ‘fills the loneliness with things.’ I felt the story lacked a strong central thread, at times feeling, unfortunately, a collection of characters and events.