I’m probably a little bit late posting some thoughts about the National Short Story Award shortlist now that the winner has been announced. But I’ve only just finished listening to the readings those nice people at Radio 4 have put on-line.
If you’re not familiar with it, this award is open stories that have previously been published or authors who have a track record of publication. Apart from the fact that they normally have some gems on the shortlist, I think main the reason this award works so well and is so important is the profile of the short-listed authors – having someone famous like Zadie Smith or Lionel Shriver on the list helps to build a profile for short stories when too often it can feel like a form of writing that people are prepared to ignore.
Much was made about the fact that the shortlist was all-female, but the authors’ gender is really the only thing this diverse set of stories have in common. I really liked Bad Dreams by Tessa Hadley. It’s the story of a girl who wakes up after a nightmare and wanders through her home, rearranging some of the furniture as she does so, causing her mother to be shocked and discomfited when she finds it in the morning. I thought it was vividly told and I enjoyed the theme of unintended consequences, but also its stout defence of the very act of reading itself via the daughter’s love of Swallow’s And Amazons.
I was a bit less sure about The American Lover by Rose Tremain – the idea of a writer turning her heartache into a novel felt like a story I’d already heard before either in real life or fiction (it made me think of Any Human Heart by William Boyd more than anything), although the final encounter, or non-encounter really, between the protagonist and her American lover, was a touching end.
I found The Taxidermist’s Daughter by Francesca Rhydderch beautifully evocative. It describes the impact a lodger has on a girl who helps her father with his taxidermy business, and the taxidermy process is wonderfully described, and helped provide a unique setting for this story of sexual awakening. There was a real richness to the language that I really enjoyed and I thought her dialogue was also spot on.
The dialogue was also superb in Zadie Smith’s Miss Adele Amidst The Corsets, with the most unusual plot on the shortlist, telling the efforts of a black drag queen to buy a new corset. I love Smith’s novels, and have always thought a real strength of hers is a sharp observation of how cities look and feel – this quality is present again through her evocation of New York. I also thought it was the funniest of the stories – there were some brilliant lines in it. And it also certainly conjures up an image that is going to stay with me for a long time – an aging drag queen battling middle age spread to fit into a corset in a changing room. But at its heart there was a real point to be made about how belonging to a minority can create a prism through which we see interactions with others as well as gentrification and aging.
Aging was also one of the themes in Lionel Shriver’s Kilifi Creek, which telling the story of a gap year student on holiday in Africa, who gets into difficulty whilst swimming. I really enjoyed her shortlisted story from last year, Prepositions, and this was also an engaging story throwing up questions about how we approach life. It’s not just about near-death experiences, but about the difficult moments in life that make us realise we are adults and the burdens and anxieties that come with them. And it’s framed by clear description of the surroundings and characters that are perfectly sketched out to be well rounded and realistic in a handful of sentences. However, much as I liked the completeness of the ending, I was a little bit unsure about the amount of detail about Liana’s life that took us there.
Like the judges I’d have put Shriver and Smith in the top two. But for me, Smith’s was the better of the two. In part it’s because of my preference for “funny”, and Miss Adele Amidst The Corsets met that need better than any of the others on the list. But the characters and the set-up were just that little bit more original and memorable, the writing the tiniest bit sharper.