This was a marvellous long list. I thoroughly enjoyed reading all the stories several times. There were stories in flight, secret meetings, barbershop chats, runaway brides; there were mystical yearnings and mythical transformations; there were stalkers and lovers, nuns and tattoos, jam and germs. Such riches, such variety.
I was careful to give the stories I may not have immediately been drawn to a chance. As such, I re-read many of them many more times, and the eventual short list emerged with some surprises. Some were obvious choices, while others had a way of creeping up on me. I let them simmer for a few days and came back to them. In the end, the ones that kept coming back joined the ones that were moved quickly into the Top 20 box. In truth, the Top 20 box had 27 in it for a while. The 20 that I eventually committed to each offered something unique – in language, voice, character, mood, setting or outside-the-box thinking.
These 20 I read many times. I read them with my coffee. I read them late at night. I read them out loud – I love reading a story out loud and heeding how the sounds work on the tongue. The ones that moved up the list stood up to many readings, each time presenting something new. The Top 3 became clear because of their layers and secrets. Each of them carries an obvious story at first glance, with other weightier things under the surface. And each has beautiful writing that surprised me.
I hope readers will enjoy the seven stories I’ve selected as the finalists and winners of the competition as much as I have. It has been a pleasure contemplating all these stories. I’ve carried them around in my daily life, and they’ve brought considerable pleasure each day.
The close attention to detail and sounds make this a memorable story from the very first encounter. The round vowels of the opening phrasings roll in the mouth like the sea. Intentional alliteration, consonance and repetitions drive the rhythms of the lines but are never obtrusive: from ‘stumbling over cobbles’ to ‘ducking the jutting houses’ to the stories spilling… The carefully painted images create a closely observed scene with an economy of words. It’s as if the reader is in the room with the mapmaker and his daughter: the ripe cheese and cherries, the landscapes (‘smoking mountains, shrieking ice’), the ‘swell and dip’ of the ‘billowing dress’. I am sitting there in the dark with the girl and her father as they whisper over their task. And what a task, too – the ending brings the reader from the quiet of the small space to the expanse of the world, and the delicate balance between mapmakers and all they see and convey. A quiet knockout.
Wonderful character sketch, with the beating sun setting the mood and scorching the reader’s heart. A story demonstrating creative attention to detail: heat is ‘ladled from the sky’; the tree ‘yanking its shadow clean off…and setting it down somewhere else’. Repetitions and sounds make the reader feel as Danny feels – ‘muddled… duddled… fuddled’ near the beginning, while later the ‘slivers of glinting silver have shaved him smooth…’. Further, beyond the character depth here, we also glimpse something like hope, albeit heartbreaking. Youth embodied in golden bodies of teenagers: the promise of a life not lived, a life over there – just out of reach. Exceptional detail opening up a cavernous world of empty. And a fully imagined sequence creating a perfect close.
The baby came early, screaming
Delightfully strange, wonderfully creative, with images that stick: the baby’s ‘tinny heartbeat’; the clocks crawling ‘with their slow worming glow’. And killer moments like this: ‘The days pounded. The flat pulsated. Davina slept in the bathtub like each night was a hurricane warning.’ The pacing of this story is carried by the staccato rhythms of the writing, driving like a train – or, like an incessantly ticking clock (or possible time bomb) – and punctuated by snappy spoken interjections. This writer knows how to balance description and dialogue (even if it’s just a mum addressing a child who cannot answer). The fragmented nature of the writing, the frenetic movement, the sense of helpless panic: these elements drive this story. But they do so with humour and a playful, deft hand.
Pacing, character, voice: this sharp piece gets right into the head and heart of the narrator and keeps the reader there, moving manically from moment to moment, halting only when the frenetic energy is forced to a close – and even then, when the young narrator has been pushed back in the box, the imagination still plays at the edges, there at the bitter end.
Falkland Island Walk
‘He has a head like a red nightmare and he doesn’t care; he’s not looking for friends.’ The descriptions and colours, the sounds and atmosphere of this piece make it hum, like the wind that ‘makes the heather buzz’. A story that is almost entirely description, with very little plot or change – but soft observational writing that makes the place seem as permanent and haunting as the wind.
October 29th, 1.17am
Remarkable how such almost-mundane brutality can be summed up and skewered in a small piece like this. The repetition works eerily, beautifully. Also noteworthy is the way this marks a specific date, a specific act of violence, but is universal in the chilling feeling that is left behind. The not-naming of the someones is very well considered and makes this story utterly unforgettable.
Such a measured voice here. Such an odd story – and I like odd. Dry and removed, quiet and distanced, with a soft tenderness at the end. A story that is about a town, a mood, a space, an emptiness – and a last image delivered with a surprisingly light touch.