What a feast of delights awaits us the reader in this years BBC National Short Story Award 2020 from Comma Press – I’m a huge fan of this series as I’m a huge fan of the short story form and well this year we are treated to some great voices, some old and some new and one in particular that I was told to read years ago by Roisin O’Donnell but I’m not afraid to admit it… I hadn’t got around to (Jan Carson – I’m talking about you!) and wow what took me so bloody long to discover that unique voice!
We have coming of age tales, familial hurt, addiction and late night videos – it’s a varied collection that offers some fabulously woven stories that showcase what a wonderful art form the short story is and why people love it so much.
Because they are short stories I won’t unpack them in too much detail, and with Eley Williams’ story being the briefest of the collection I don’t want to ruin anything for the reader, so without any more delay, on with the review…
Pray – Caleb Azumah Nelson – Is a coming of age tale, the sense of teenage angst is throbbing within this story along with the references to music and the young men trying to carve a place for themselves in society. There is a lot subtly sewn into this piece about race and culture and I bloody loved it, it was the unsaid that was heartachingly brutal and brilliant. The emphasis on culture and music in this story work intrinsically together and give the reader a fully immersive experience, but the sense of place within the story (which almost forms a character in its own right) also made me desperately want to head back to my home… London. London is a place I miss so much, but with Pray a little piece of that re-emerged, the aching and the longing to go back home – it’s a stunning opening to the collection and I loved the sights and sounds (accents) that the writer employs in the story, and it’s these little pieces of authenticity that make the story sing.
In The Car with Rain Coming Down – Jan Carson – Jan Carson, where have you been my whole life? Such a beautiful and wonderful story about family; those we are born with and those we inherit – In The Car with Rain Coming Down is a perfectly written and quite brilliantly balanced story and in my personal opinion should have been the winner of this years competition. All the in’s and out’s of family life, hurt, pain, suffering, things that are unsaid but known bubble beneath the surface of pleasantries that add tension that is palpable. It’s life under the microscope and done so well. Our main protagonist is the daughter in law and she’s also pregnant, her husband is the first born but also the runt of the litter – always a displeasure to his mother and father, whereas the youngest son is the one who can never do anything wrong and is praise above everyone else. But today will be different there sure of it, what with the news they have to share. A quite masterful story that has me searching out more of Jan Carson’s work.
The Grotesques Sarah Hall – Typical brilliance from one of my favourite short story writers, this one packs a punch in a very beautifully and deftly woven story. We see familial issues bubbling below the surface in a broiling stew of never coming out from under the matriarchal mother’s shadow. A glimpse into a world where our protagonist feels that she doesn’t belong but feels as though she can never escape its clutches, an honest and heartfelt story that pulls the reader in immediately and drags them through the story whether they want to or not. This is masterful storytelling and showcases a writer who in my opinion is one of the best and original voices of my generation!
Come down heavy by Jack Houston –Jack Houston is a new voice to me and I really enjoyed this outing. Addiction and drug use take centre stage in this story which create a very powerful and non-stop descent that starts at a sprint and never lets up. This is a depressing read, but also one that is perfectly executed. I work with addicts and this is by far one of the best stories I’ve read that gets into the mindset of an addict, the darkness that they reside in and the never ending carrousel that they find themselves on – not since Hubert Shelby Jr’s ‘Requiem for a Dream’ or Irvine Welsh’s ‘Trainspotting’ have I seen such a fabulous gritty depiction of what an addict has to live through, or has the plight of an addict been expressed so honestly. The format was a little strange and took some getting used to but the power of the story shines through.
Scrimshaw by Eley Williams – This is a fabulous little story, the shortest story in the collection by far. I enjoyed where this story went and the writing was absolutely stunning – it’s Eley Williams so I knew it was going to be good. A late night text messaging goes awry and the sender of said message goes into a panic of what she’s unwittingly set in motion and her thoughts turn to how this will be received by its receiver. Funny and wonderfully enjoyable.
An enjoyable collection that sheds light on some lesser known writers who are creating quite a stir in the literary world. Pick up a copy and enjoy pure escapism and masterful storytelling.
The BBC National Short Story Award 2020 is published by Comma Press and is available here.
Jan Carson, Sarah Hall, Jack Houston, Caleb Azumah Nelson & Eley Williams
Reviewed by Ross Jeffery
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