In the introduction to The BBC National Short Story Award 2019 broadcaster and chair of judges Nikki Bedi writes…
‘short stories are not a warm up for the ‘real thing’ as some would have us believe. They are gifts of concision, they demand one’s total attention’.
As an ardent fan of short fiction – more so than novel length works – I find myself in total agreement. There is much to be explored in short stories, and there is much skill to be applied too. A short story has the ability to move, intrigue and seduce in ways that are specific to the form. Of the five short stories included in The BBC National Short Story Award 2019, each bring those merits and more to the forefront. As Bedi notes…
‘the five stories we’ve chosen transported us to new places; physically, emotionally, mythologically and culturally.’
2019 sees the award celebrate its fourteenth year. In that time, names such as Zadie Smith, Mark Haddon, Sarah Hall and Lionel Shriver have all made the cut, either as winners or shortlisted. It’s a prestigious award – the winner receiving £15,000. For the sixth time too, 2019 sees an all-female shortlist – Jo Lloyd, and her piece ‘The Invisible’ taking home the top prize at the beginning of October.
For the sake of order, I will begin with the winner herself. The story, ‘The Invisible’, is inspired by true events – an 18th century woman from Caernarfonshire in Wales called Martha. She claimed, in a brief dictionary entry, to be friends with an invisible family. Lloyd takes that thread and spins a tale that is as resonant as it is irregular. It is a story to be read over and over. It opens –
‘Mr Ingram and his invisible daughter Miss Ingram live close by, Martha tells us, in a grant, impractical mansion […] except invisible, of course’.
It is an opening that hooks, as does the rest of the tale. Written in a style that harks folk tales and the fabulist, Martha’s neighbours begin to believe in the invisible Ingram’s – ‘tell us more, we say, and Martha dimples like a girl’. Yet as the tale progresses, so does the obsession, leading friends and family to fall out, and doubt to creep. Thematically it is clear where Lloyd is going – the divisions of class, and wealth, but so too is the willingness to believe in what may or may not be there – in a sphere we cannot access. As judge Cynan Jones says, it is ‘timelessly relevant’. Martha is harassed by questions until she becomes reclusive, and yet in the end, the folk wonder if the invisible ‘ever dream of us.’ It’s mythical and hard to place, Lloyd’s prose transporting us towards a sense of confusion and intrigue, much like Martha’s tale itself. A worthy winner, for sure.
The creation of complete worlds and sound characters is a motif of the pieces shortlisted. Just as Lloyd conjures a real community in ‘The Invisible’, in ‘Ghillie’s Mum’ by Lynda Clark, there too is a sense of reality amongst the odd. You believe in the world – a mark of an adept writer, more so, when you consider that in ‘Ghillie’s Mum’, there are humans who can shape-shift into animals. Ghillie’s mum, as the title would suggest, can transform into creatures – ‘when he was a baby, Ghillie’s mum was mostly an orangutan.’ As he gets older, and begins to attend school, that’s when he realises his mum isn’t like the other mums. ‘And that meant he wasn’t like other kids.’ The tale is far more poignant once you realise the bigger picture. Here, Clark isn’t just penning a story of transformation, but is exploring the deeper meaning of what it means to be different – the ‘other’, and how we treat those we make no effort to understand. Eventually Ghillie’s mum is put into the ‘Facility’ and Ghillie to a ‘Registry’ where he is looked after. As he ages, he comes to master his own shape-shifting skills, as do his own daughters – the ending bittersweet. In a climate where we so often fear the perceived ‘other’, Lloyd traverses the theme in a unique manner. It is a truly moving short story, demonstrating the best the form can offer.
Otherworldliness is painted in ‘Silver Fish in the Midnight Sea’ by Jacqueline Crooks. Narrated in patois, the story gives voice to social exclusion and isolation through the eyes of children Macca, Carlos and Ycara, and their childhood summer holiday. Their Muma – a single parent who works night-shifts, needs them to keep quiet so she can rest –
‘Locked in. Locked out. Three bendy-boned, streggae-streggae children left to ramp in the garden’.
It’s in that garden that they create their own secret worlds where Sound-Ghost resides,
‘the sunken flower bed is the centrepiece of the overgrown garden, created by Mr Adler, who used to live in the house with Sound-Ghost when she was his wife.’
Just as the children dream so too does their Muma, who dreams of her former existence in Jamaica – their new neighbours know nothing of their life, ‘Me and my children stand out as it is. Only black family on this estate. We confuse dem: Black blood, Indian blood – every kinda Caribbean blood.’ The piece is rich in imagery and turn of phrase – ‘my eyes become chambers of sound and heat’, with Crooks curling you into the narrative neatly.
Motherhood makes itself know in Lucy Caldwell’s ‘The Children’ too, though the circumstances are different. A contemporary piece, the story focuses on loss, told through parallel narratives; the narrator, who is unsure whether she might be diagnosed with breast cancer and will leave her children, then there is the book she is reading on a custody campaigner called Caroline Norton (a true story) from the 19th century, and finally the ever growing distress of watching children being taken from their families at the Mexico/US border under orders from President Trump. Unsurprisingly, the piece is stirring, though the inclusion of the present-day trauma elevates the context. It is not done heavy-handed. Instead Caldwell slips the stream of the present-day news into the narrator’s life –
‘when I can’t concentrate on Caroline’s letters any longer, I read Twitter instead.’
Each life here is connected through the common fear of losing a child, despite the clear disparate situations. It’s a sobering story in more ways than one, and shows that though time, status, chance, and so on, are diverse, there is a human emotion that spans all.
The final piece is contemporary too, dealing with female agency and what it means to take ownership of your life, specifically out of the hands of an older male. In ‘My Beautiful Millennial’ by Tamsin Grey, Dido is our narrator, and it is Paul Fildes who she is seeing, ‘the only person I’ve got to know since I moved to London’. He lives in Amersham, a market town northwest of the capital –
‘Amersham is the resting place of Ruth Ellis, the last woman in Britain to be hanged’.
Need I say anymore? He tells Dido she is ‘obstinate, evasive, complex, damaged, and also bewitching’, and though she longs for others her own age she keeps returning to Paul. As she makes her way to Amersham halfway through December, she decides that finally she wants to be free of him. An odd altercation with a pigeon on the train gives Dido the push she needs to commit to herself, and herself alone. Though he pleads for her to stay with him for Christmas, Dido refuses. Throughout the piece Grey captures scenes and conversations in clarity (I’m sure I’ve had a few of them myself), and though there are some for which the story will not resonate (I needn’t say who), there are so many who will connect to the tale. As Dido leaves Paul, his final few words are typical of a man (not all men, blah, blah, blah) rejected –
‘well, I hate to be the one to tell you, Dido, but you’re probably not pretty enough […] you’re too scruffy. Too grubby-looking’.
Her agency is, you would hope, hers once again.
The six shortlisted stories of The BBC National Short Story Award 2019 anthology are bright examples of what it means to write short fiction, and to write it well. Worlds are created in twenty pages or less, characters’ lives fully realised, and tales entertain and charm in different measures. Short stories are a joy to read, none more so than the ones included here.
The BBC National Short Story Award Anthology 2019 is published by Comma Press and is available here.
Nikki Bedi is a television and radio broadcaster with a passion for making arts and culture accessible. She currently curates, writes and presents The Arts Hour on the BBC World Service, their flagship arts and culture programme. Nikki has most recently been seen on TV presenting the topical, weekly arts and entertainment programme Front Row, on BBC 2 on Saturday nights. She’s a regular interviewer and presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Loose Ends and has presented Front Row and Woman’s Hour on the same station.
Reviewed by Emily Harrison
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