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Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology 2008

It was as if each object, disengaged from its original purpose, found a new legitimacy in the great river, where in its kinship with other floating things it formed a forlorn mosaic about the lives of careless people. And objects that once had meaning, private things- shoes, baseball caps, the occasional jacket, gave the island a curious poignancy as they floated amongst the other trash."

Reviewed by Sheila Cornelius/p>

Although the competition attracted entries world-wide, half of writers whose work appears in the 2008 Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology were born or currently live in the Bristol area. The excellent quality of the stories is enough to make one wonder if there’s something in the water. 

Unsurprisingly, most of the writers are published or multiple prize winners. Many have studied creative writing at university, although local writing groups are obviously a fertile source. A short biography heads each of the twenty entries. Reading the entries, according to the Chair of Judges introduction, was not a cheerful task. The dominant mood was "apocalyptic" with recurring themes of "illness, mental disturbance, old age, death and suicide". 

The first four prize-winners each exemplify this in distinctive ways : in Rebecca Lloyd’s The River, a bleak estuary backdrop plays a redemptive role in a story of a young woman and her dying grandfather; the voice of an unhinged kidnapper in Derek Sellen’s Angel and Assassin recalls sinister modern surveillance practices; in Catherine Chanter’s The Boys Guide to Winning No 1 – Hide and Seek a damaged adolescent moves inexorably towards a tragic conclusion whilst Anthony Howcroft’s The Cobblestone’s Sparkle shows the insidious aspects of male bonding rituals. 

Humour comes in shades of black. In Susan Akass’s Facing Up to Things a burglar inadvertently benefits a bereaved wife and mother. Fran Landsman’s Life Sucks makes a sinister point about adolescent double standards. Ian Millsted’s Burying the Presidents is about an entrepreneurial funeral director. A ballad-like narrative style marks Nick Law’s Virtue in Danger, celebrating the triumph of Bristol-born ingenuity over eighteenth century debauchery in a city not far to the East. 

Nostalgia and fantasy act as correlatives. Ian Madden's narrator in A Peddler of Sorts, remembers a travelling swimming pool on a Scottish island and a teacher with a special mission. The simple pleasures of a day at the seaside are celebrated in Rebecca Watts’s Going Down Brean, my personal favourite. Joel Willans adds a touch of magic realism to a wistful story of female oppression in Floating On By. 

Similar themes echo in foreign or historic settings. Irene Black’s The Loi Krathong is about fighting to release potential in a tropical setting and Sue Coffey’s Hunters and Gatherers foregrounds female strength, with a chilling denouement. A Belgrade-set tale with an historical twist and a symbolic wounding mark Lee Taylor’s Unfinished Business. Tim Weaver’s Close tells of corruption’s consequences in a tale of a Cape Town police officer. 

Suspense and horror feature prominently. The immediacy of the first person present tense narrative grips in Intervention by Charlotte Mabey, when a First Aider attends an emergency and in Alan Toyne’s Tuesday Night a less well-intentioned narrator deals with the aftermath of another incident. Dominia McGowan’s Killing Me Quietly shows how a contrived façade of respectability cloaks domestic abuse. A horrific note is struck in Michael Karwowski’s The Goddaughter when a young child misinterprets adult instructions. With immediate contemporary resonance, in Miranda Lewis’s Ground, an isolated woman tries to rescue orphans an unnamed war-torn city. 

I thoroughly recommend this collection. It makes for enjoyable reading and the stories seem excellent models for aspiring short story writers.

Intrigued? Read an extract from the first-prize-winning story on BristolPrize.co.uk.

Sheila Cornelius worked as Foreign Editor for a publisher in northeast China in 2003-4 and is the author of New Chinese Cinema (2002). She lives in London and writes website reviews as well as fiction, specializing in short stories.

Sheila's other Short Reviews: Anne Enright "Taking Pictures"

Courttia Newland "Music for the Off-Key"

Loud Sparrows: Contemporary Chinese Short-shorts

PublisherBristol Review of Books Ltd

Publication Date: 2008

Paperback/Hardback? Paperback

First anthology?Yes

Authors: Susan Akass, Irene Black, Catherine Chanter, Sue Coffey, Anthony Howcroft, Michael Karwowski, Fran Landsman, Nick Law, Miranda Lewis, Rebecca Lloyd, Dominica McGowan, Charlotte Mabey, Ian Madden, Ian Millsted, Derek Sellen, Lee Taylor, Alan Toyne, Rebecca Watts, Tim Weaver, Joel Willans

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