Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology 3
 by Various Authors

Bristol Review of Books
2010, Paperback

Win a copy of this book! See the Competitions page for details.

"When I couldn't go to school anymore, the clothes straining to cover me, my armpits stained with the sweat of my bulk, he left me alone. My shadow on the bedroom wall in the moonlight was like the moon itself, round and still. I heard him coming in when the light was trickling over the treetops, his steps back and forth in the corridor, his sobbing through the wall. "

Reviewed by A J Kirby

There's a funny thing about an anthology of short stories based on an open competition. In a way, because the stories have already been judged, and listed, there is a temptation to assign value to the winning stories even before you've read them. On the other hand, once you've finished the collection, there is a very real temptation to attempt to award your own prizes, based on your own particular favourites.

It's tempting to argue that the stories should be randomised, but perhaps that would take something away from the winners. Because, for the Bristol Short Story Prize in particular, achieving a placing is a real feather to the cap of the writers concerned. Despite the fact the Prize is only in its third year, this is already becoming a competition of note. Judging from this collection, the standards are extremely high. Apparently there were over 1500 entries and this collection features the twenty short-listed entries, as well as the three which were placed. And the margins between the short-listed and placing entries are, in most cases, very tight, which suggests there was an extremely strong, high-quality field.

With one obvious exception, the winning story which opens the collection. The quite remarkable Mum's the Word by Valerie O' Riordan. Although the upper word-count limit was 3000 words, Valerie's story weighs in at only around 350 words. But... Every. Single. Word. Weighs so much heavier in emotional intensity. The headlines were, of course, that a flash fiction piece had won a short story award, but in a way, this story defies such rigid definitions. This is simply great writing, a veritable tour de force, the exception to the rules.

Not a word is wasted in Valerie's ultra-economical prose. But no punch is pulled either. From the first sentence, this story will haunt you long after you've closed the book.
"Three times with his grunting and the calloused hand over my mouth: first, the kitchen wall rough at my back; second, hands and knees against the splintered attic floor; third, pushing me into the thin mattress, while my mother slept in the next room, her belly swollen and taut."
Without question, the judging panel were correct in their decision. I imagine it was one of the easiest decisions they'd had to make in what must be a dreadfully difficult job (as the shattering/ building of dreams must be.) Separating the other entries must have been much harder.

In the competition, second place was awarded to Ian Madden's Only the Sure of Foot, a piece which tells the story of the kind of long-standing grievance which has been kept tempered by, "hot coals" until it has become "a kind of bedwarmer." Madden writes the grudge terrifically well, so that it reflects his harsh, barren Scottish landscape where: "The two men struggled to keep their footing as they stumbled from word to word." And third place was won by Rachel Howard's story, Gardening. I was less convinced by Howard's story, although it was well written, and, gratifyingly a first publication.

The excellently titled Man Friday and the Sockball Championships by Mike Bonsall is certainly one which has made an impression on me. The story is a kind of science-fiction mash-up of The Matrix and of Castaway, but don't let that put you off. Here, the unnamed narrator is trapped in a cube suspended on ropes. And he's trying to keep himself sane, trying to fill his days, trying to cling on to his humanity. But without that human contact, he struggles:
"He lacks reference data. He can't expand his vocabulary, and so cannot keep track of the new things he thinks about unless he makes up new words, which he won't do. He thinks it is too ridiculous. Also, he does not have any tools..."
"He has other thoughts that morning; this is just an example. They are all thoughts he has had before, though. Being unable to improve his brain enough to perceive new things beyond a certain ceiling, to really learn, his cache of speculations has been recycled many times. Original thoughts are few and far between."
Nevertheless, Bonsall's story is original and does contain no small measure of hope in the form of this castaway's equivalent of Tom Hanks' Wilson, Splodge, who is nothing more than a stain on the cube, but eventually becomes "an old friend"

And then there's Darci Bysouth's wonderfully descriptive Marrakech, which is a character-driven tale in which the narrator tries to come to terms with the death of her mother (and also with who her mother actually was.) From a young age, she's always been rather embarrassed of her mother:
"Our flat was not shiny. It was frequently hazy with smoke from the cigarettes my mum smoked constantly, or from the incense she lit to hide the smell. My mother wore squat sandals with woolly socks and kept her shoes on in the house. I'd ask why she did not wear smart suits like the other mothers, or go out to work in high heeled pumps."
Her mother was a hippy, a "remnant(s) of a counter culture." Her mother is someone who has the polar opposite to the narrator's cynicism, she's "deluded" by a kind of childish reverence for a single place, Marrakech, which she brings to life during constant reminiscences. Only after her mother's death does the narrator come to understand what Marrakech really was, and this is quite a twist which I won't spoil here.

In case you're wondering, my own top three would be Mum's the Word by Valerie O' Riordan, Marrakech by Darci Bysouth, and Man Friday and the Sockball Championships by Mike Bonsall. With honourable mentions for Marli Roode's moving tale of exile, Spring Tide, Claire King's Wine at Breakfast, which is set against a backdrop of Chernobyl, and Two Girls Under an Apple Tree by Kate Brown, which bears comparison to Arthur Miller's The Crucible and Ian McEwan's Atonement.

A brief nod to Conservation of Angular Momentum, by Ashley Jacob, which is comedy of the highest order. It's rare to see good comic writing on competition shortlists, but Jacob's tale stands up with the best here. His drunken hot-air balloon adventure brings a smile to the reader's face, and his characters are like the literary equivalents of the only decent characters in Mitchell and Webb show, the stars of The Surprising Adventures of Sir Digby Chicken Caesar sketch.

I would urge anyone who is planning on entering a competition this year to buy, beg, steal, or borrow a copy of this fantastic anthology. Not because it will put you off entering, but because this collection is likely to inspire you. More than anything else, for me, this collection shows that in most cases it is impossible to write to a set formula, impossible to second guess the judges, especially if there is a panel of them, as there is in this case. This anthology shows it is better to write something you feel passionate about, rather than attempting to write something the judge might be. And that's what makes this such good (and instructive) reading.

Win a copy of this book! See the Competitions page for details.

A J Kirby  is the author of three novels; Bully (Wild Wolf Publishing, 2009); The Magpie Trap, and When Elephants walk through the Gorbals, and a new volume of short stories, Mix Tape (New Generation Publishing, 2010). His short fiction was most recently featured in the Legend Press anthology Ten Journeys.

A Js other Short Reviews: Route "Book at Bedtime"

Al Riske "Precarious"

Lorraine M. Lopez "Homicide Survivors Picnic"

Guy Cranswick "Corporate"

Johnny Towsend "Zombies for Jesus"

Howard Goldowsky (ed) "Masters of Technique"
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Authors Mike Bonsall, Kate Brown, Darci Bysouth, Joanna Campbell, Tara Conklin, Rik Gammack, Rachel Howard, Ashley Jacob, Claire King, Ian Madden, Valerie O'Riordan, Nastasya Parker, Jonathan Pinnock, Marli Roode, Rachel Sargeant, Yana Stajno, Natasha Tripney, Sherri Turner, Ben Walker, Clare Wallace