Wishing to do more around the Edge Hill Short Story Prize than simply report on it, I hit upon the idea of sampling each of the collections on this year’s longlist. I do so to not only shine much needed light on an under featured prize, but also to offer some impression on the stories of some of the writers I may not have yet got to (plus it gives me yet another outlet to play around in short story world, I guess :)).
Ideally it would be better to comment on the collections as a whole I know, but so large is the number of collections on the longlist (this year the total is 38), and so short is the gap before the shortlist announcement is made (this year – May 31st), that this is something of an impossibility. So, better to offer something rather than nothing, right?
It should be noted that I’ve purposely focused on the opening story of each collection, simply because most authors tend to lead with their ‘biggest guns’. I know this is not always the case, but more often than not a collection will kick off with the author’s finest.
Without further ado then, I give you Part 1 of Tasting the Edge Hill Short Story Prize 2013. And please feel free to comment and engage if you so wish (wherever possible I’ve provided information and links to the stories I’ve focused on, so you’ve no excuse not to :)).
Collection: Fireproof and Other Stories (Doire Press)
Author: Celeste Augé
Synopsis: It could be said that all of us are strange, but we have spent lifetimes perfecting the art of appearing normal. The sixteen stories in Fireproof expose the moments in ordinary lives when people aren’t trying to be normal. In the title story ‘Fireproof’, a child struggles with language as she navigates her way through different cultures into adulthood. In ‘Touching Fences’ a woman is faced with the hidden fear that she has been trapped in a compromise, while in ‘Mammary World’ a teenage girl refuses to yield her vision of herself to anyone. The final story ‘DeeDee and the Sorrows’ takes a moving look at the compulsion of the artist to make art.
This collection of stories offers a refreshing variety of voices, sketching both the ordinary and the strange in life, with deep empathy. A sense of rebirth runs through this emotionally complex collection. Several stories have won awards (including the Cuirt Festival of Literature ‘New Writing’ Prize) and others have been published in literary journals in Ireland and the US.
Story selected for taster: Fireproof (this story can be downloaded from Amazon, as part of a Kindle sample of the collection)
Briefly: Mary Pheonix Lebel has an affinity with language. But perhaps this is not surprising given that she lives in Canada with an Irish mother and a French-speaking father. Language makes this young girl unique, and as she grows older so her relationship and love of language deepens and widens.
Afterthoughts: I’ve never really read anything quite like Fireproof. It’s completely unusual in that it follows the development of a character from the unique perspective of language. The story is undoubtedly influenced by the author’s own experiences (Ms. Augé is Irish Canadian, and like the main character in this story she grew up for part of her life in Canada with an Irish mother, before emigrating to Ireland), and it’s truly fascinating.
Not only is language something that is important to the main character Mary in this story – so important in fact that she takes joy and comfort in creating her own words – it also labels her as something of an outcast. It seems that Mary relishes this however, not least because it appeals to her somewhat rebellious nature. As Mary grows older and moves from Canada to Ireland and beyond, so her relationship with language shifts and develops. And it is here, or at least when she becomes a mother, that Mary’s connection with words becomes overwhelmingly poignant. To say why would be to spoil the ending, but be assured that this story has one of these endings that tends to dwell with the reader for a long time.
Additional: Celeste interviewed by fellow writer, Valerie Sirr • Read Mammary World from the Fireproof and Other Stories collection • Read Molly Fawn, also from the same collection • Celeste reading The Good Boat from her Fireproof and Other Stories collection
Collection: Dark Lies the Island (Jonathan Cape)
Author: Kevin Barry
Synopsis: A kiss that just won’t happen. A disco at the end of the world. A teenage goth on a terror mission. And OAP kiddie-snatchers, and scouse real-ale enthusiasts, and occult weirdness in the backwoods…
Dark Lies the Island is a collection of unpredictable stories about love and cruelty, crimes, desperation, and hope from the man Irvine Welsh has described as ‘the most arresting and original writer to emerge from these islands in years’. Every page is shot through with the riotous humour, sympathy and blistering language that mark Kevin Barry as a pure entertainer and a unique teller of tales
Story selected for taster: Across the Rooftops (this story can be downloaded from Amazon, as part of a Kindle sample of the collection)
Briefly: A new day is dawning and the narrator sits post-party on the rooftops overlooking the city, with a girl he has feeling for. He contemplates moving in for a first kiss.
Afterthoughts: The opening story to Barry’s new collection is a short one but it’s as good as any other I’ve read of his. This one captures perfectly that awkward moment when a young man is on the cusp of a new relationship – one he clearly cares about – when he’s unsure about making a move should he blow everything. We’re not talking full-on sexual encounter here, but rather the first kiss that either confirms a relationship or destroys it. I shan’t tell you how it works out, but I will say that I loved this story’s subtlety, because it’s more about delicate body language than anything else. I also loved the story’s rooftop setting. Aside from anything else, it made everything feel all the more intimate.
Additional: Read Fjord of Killary from the Dark Lies the Island collection, on the New Yorker website • Author Nikesh Shukla interviews Kevin Barry following his Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award win for a story also featured in the Dark Lies the Island collection, Beer Trip to LLandudno • Rob’s review of Dark Lies the Island
Collection: Sweet Home (Salt Publishing)
Author: Carys Bray
Synopsis: A bereaved mother borrows her next door neighbor’s baby. An outsider builds a gingerbread house at the edge of an English village. A woman is seduced into buying special-offer babies at the supermarket. A father is reminded of his son as he watches the rescue of a group of Chilean miners. A little boy attempts to engineer a happily ever after following the death of his sister.
With psychological insight and a lightness of touch frequently found in fairy tales, Bray delves under the surface of ordinary lives to explore loss, disappointment, frustrated expectations and regret. Described as ‘not just excellent, but significant,’ by poet and critic Robert Sheppard, these dark and lyrical stories illuminate extraordinary and everyday occurrences with humanity and humour.
Story selected for taster: Just in Case
Briefly: Emma is desperate to borrow a baby. And while the sex of the baby is of no concern to her, she’s fixated on trying to find one of a certain length.
Afterthoughts: Asking to borrow someone’s baby is creepy enough, but showing a puzzling interest in a baby’s length is taking a step into the realms of insanity. I’m not giving anything away here because this bizarre revelation shows up in the first paragraph, and it sets a marker for what turns out to be a highly unsettling story.
I wouldn’t be giving too much away either by saying that this story deals with the unimaginable grief that accompanies the loss of a baby, but it does so in an extraordinary way, as one woman’s heartache turns into an obsession of the most morbid kind, which is linked to an obsession of another kind.
Full marks to the author for creating a story that’s as highly imaginative as it is ‘punch in the guts’ memorable. Along with cooking up some startling visuals, Ms. Bray deftly drops in a few sentences that literally stops the reader in his/her tracks. It all adds up to ensuring that one can’t help but read past this opening story to the collection, into the realms of the author’s skewed yet completely literary mind.
Additional: Writer Paul McVeigh interviews Carys Bray • Poet and writer, Alison Lock talks to Carys Bray about the subject of short stories • Read the story Under Covers, from the Sweet Home collection, courtesy of Female First
Collection: Catching The Barramundi (Odyssey Books)
Author: Rebecca Burns
Synopsis: Sudden, shattering moments of realisation; creeping, gradual self-awareness – Catching the Barramundi is a collection of contemporary short stories charting the dichotomous processes of reassessment and reflection. The settings vary, but the characters in each tale experience moments of introspection and self-scrutiny, quite out of step with their daily lives.
Story selected for taster: Catching the Barramundi (this story can be read on the publisher website or downloaded from Amazon as part of a Kindle sample of the collection)
Briefly: Seemingly coping with the recent loss of her husband Stan, Connie begins to realise, with the arrival of a man called Martyn at the camping ground that she runs, that she has a real need to fill the gap in her life that Stan has left.
Afterthoughts: Everything that the synopsis says about the collection as a whole is encompassed in this story. A woman still hurting from the grief of losing her husband, begins to feel the need to fulfil her own desires and to replace the emptiness that she has begun to notice in her life; an emptiness that’s all the more amplified due to the woman’s location, and the fact that her son is also living away and forging a life for himself.
The short story is, of course, the perfect platform for honing in on a single emotion or dilemma, and Ms. Burns utilises the form perfectly to implant the buds of desire inside a fragile and still grieving character, and run with it. But Catching the Barramundi is so much more than a simple tale of wanton lust mixed with guilt, and although there’s an electric undercurrent of sexual tension running through the story, it is firmly controlled and reined in. As Connie begins to feel pangs of desire she also has to subdue feelings of infidelity and faithfulness, while at the same coping with uncertainty, caution and a degree of shyness. It’s a lovely story, with a flavour of Raymond Carver to it, and I also love that it feels very Australian without ever trying to be.
Collection: Tea at the Midland (Comma Press)
Author: David Constantine
Synopsis: To the woman watching they looked like grace itself, the heart and soul of which is freedom. It pleased her particularly that they were attached by invisible strings to colourful curves of rapidly moving air. How clean and clever that was! You throw up something like a handkerchief, you tether it and by its headlong wish to fly away, you are towed along…
Like the kite-surfers in this opening scene, the characters in David Constantine’s fourth collection are often delicately caught in moments of defiance. Disregarding their age, their family, or the prevailing political winds, they show us a way of marking out a space for resistance and taking an honest delight in it. Witness Alphonse – having broken out of an old people’s home, changed his name, and fled the country – now pedalling down the length of the Rhône, despite knowing he has barely six months to live. Or the clergyman who chooses to spend Christmas Eve – and the last few hours in his job – in a frozen, derelict school, dancing a wild jig with a vagrant called Goat.
Key to these characters’ defiance is the power of fiction, the act of holding real life at arm’s length and simply telling a story – be it of the future they might claim for themselves, or the imagined lives of others. Like them, Constantine’s bewitching, finely-wrought stories give us permission to escape, they allow us to side-step the inexorable traffic of our lives, and beseech us to take possession of the moment.
Story selected for taster: Tea at the Midland (this story can be directly downloaded from HERE (PDF format – courtesy of the Booktrust) or downloaded as part of a Kindle sample from Amazon)
Briefly: A man and woman share afternoon tea at the famous art deco-themed Midland Hotel in Morecambe. It soon becomes clear however, that the glorious setting is doing little to bring the couple closer together.
Afterthoughts: This is the story that won its author the BBC National Short Story Award in 2010, and for good reason. It’s an absolute triumph of a tale. Not a lot happens in terms of action in Tea at The Midland, but it does the one thing that all good short stories should do – it draws out a single element of the human condition and shines a light on it. Here it’s all about a failed connection, where two people are failing in their illicit relationship to hold on to the intimacy that was once existed. Fractures are beginning to show, and all against a backdrop where natural scenery and art clash, in breathtaking splendour.
The story is deeply personal one, and the views and feelings of individuals are intwined with reference to Homer’s Odyssey (sparked by Eric Gill’s famous relief artwork in the hotel), paedophilia (amongst other sexual deviances Eric Gill sexually abused his own children) and the activities of a group of kite surfers working their thing on the stretch of sea overlooking the hotel. One cannot help but feel affected, but all on a very subtle level.
Mr. Constantine is also a poet and this much is clear when reading a prose that rings with much poetic resonance. He’s also something of a grammar rebel because he doesn’t use speech marks, and such is the way that he embeds dialogue that it needs added concentration on behalf of the reader to determine all that is being spoken. This is no bad thing however because it draws the reader closer, adding all the more to the intimacy of the story.
Additional: Scotsman interview with David Constantine • A brief audio preview of Tea at the Midland • A recent essay by David Constantine at Thresholds, on Short Stories and the Power of “Not Knowing”