Recently I’ve been trying to read more short fiction. It is something I really enjoy but in the past haven’t dedicated a lot of time to. I follow Rob at Rob Around Books very closely as he is a staunch advocate of short fiction and his recent chatter has been about the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story award. I thought this was as good a place as any to start paying more attention. Thanks to the wonderful addition of eReaders and Kindles, the shortlist is available to read for just £1.95.
The shortlist is comprised of six individual stories by very talented writers from around the world –
- Miss Lora by Junot Díaz
- The Gun by Mark Haddon
- Evie by Sarah Hall
- The Dig by Cynan Jones
- Call it “The Bug” Because I Have No Time to Think of a Better Title by Toby Litt
- The Beholder by Ali Smith
The overall award winner and recipient of the £30,000 winner’s cheque will be announced at the Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival, on Friday 22nd March, with the five runners-up each receiving a cheque for £1,000. I have read each of the stories and wanted to give a little opinion of each and select who I would like to see walk away with the award.
Miss Lora by Junot Diaz already had me frowning with Diaz’ use of second person narrative. Personally I’m not a fan of its use, especially when the story is so niche in its telling and setting. I didn’t really click with the general premise and found the characters a little cumbersome and unlikeable. The idea of a young man having an affair with an older woman is interesting but also a little stale. I know Diaz comes with a lot of recognition so this may be a blip. However, I did really enjoy the environment to be engaging, as well as the use of dialect and language.
The Gun by Mark Haddon turned out to be one of my two favourites from the shortlist. Haddon captured my mind with his punchy and dark story of two young boys “playing” with a gun. For such a brief tale, Haddon captures a sense of tension that me gripping my Kindle a little tighter. There is a beauty in his sentence structure and prose. Despite the staccato punch of the writing if affects the reader in a deeply evolving way. This is particularly heightened if you can relate the world of council estates and “rough” families. I was so utterly captivated by the story that I had to remind myself that it would end quickly. Haddon defines the short story here by creating a tale that would never sustain a novel.
Evie by Sarah Hall. Now, I know Rob had his issues with this story, mainly due to its explicit nature. Let’s be frank, the story is downright pornographic in places and although it is used to further the eventual narrative, it does feel like it would exclude certain readers. It is hard to say why the explicit nature works, though, without giving away the crucial plot point. I’d love to say that the story is well written but to be honest, I didn’t notice because the torrent of sex gets in the way of what could be truly emotional.
The Dig by Cynan Jones interested me at first with the central idea. I liked the initial feeling of a father and son heading out to bond in the only way they know how – to dig for Badgers. There’s a gritty feel to the story that can bring out some discomfort in the reader but there is also an underlying sweetness in the endearing qualities of the son. Not long into the story and it began to lose its grip on me. I wanted a little more obvious connection with the emotions being displayed; I suppose it was a little too vague for me. No matter, it was still written with a vast amount of skill and I left it with a respect for Jones and a need to read more.
Call it “The Bug” Because I Have No Time to Think of a Better Title by Toby Litt is my other favourite. This is the only story that has a “genre” twist to it, being that it is loosely Sci-Fi. I loved everything about the structure of this story. Litt wrote this while dealing with the death of his mother and his narrative is built in a conversational style. Each word falls as if from moving lips and they all land with a bittersweet taint. This is Litt telling you about the story he would have written had he not been suffering, but you still walk away knowing his idea solidly. The concept of a “bug” you swallow that protects your body from disease and illness is entertaining but also strongly related to how Litt must have felt. This is a genuinely exciting way of telling a story, though I can see how some may find it is a little too experimental.
The Beholder by Ali Smith. This story did nothing for me in the initial reading, but as time went on as I looked back, I appreciated what Smith did. There is no faulting Ali Smith for her writing, but the idea didn’t really go anywhere. I don’t mind fantastical fiction or speculative ideas (as we should know by now) but I always want a clear message. I can only interpret that this woman who suddenly had a rose bush growing from her chest is a symbol for wearing your heart on your sleeve or showing off your emotions. The more I pondered this, the more I liked it… but I wanted so much more from such an acclaimed writer.
So, who is my winner? Well, that depends on whether I follow my head or my heart. If I go for the former, then it would be ‘The Gun’ by Mark Haddon. It has all the right things that build a short story and tells a genuinely exciting story. However, if I went with the latter it would be ‘Call it “The Bug” Because I Have No Time to Think of a Better Title’ by Toby Litt for his pure displays of emotion interwoven with an honestly interesting plot.
I’m an emotional guy, I’ve been through a lot, I’ve lost a treasured member of my family. I follow my heart in all things and that means that, for me, Toby Litt is my choice for the prize. I may be overly sentimental and that could colour my feelings, however those feelings were sparked by a story and that story has to be my favourite.