James Holden: Some thoughts on the 2015 National Short Story Award

Like last year, I thought I’d post my thoughts about the BBC’s Short Story of the Year competition. 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.

One of the reasons that they manage to get profile for the award is the profile of the nominees, proving that short stories are not just a niche form of writing. Mark Haddon, who wrote the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night takes top billing on the press release this year, but the shortlist also includes what is surely the most talked about short story of the past couple of years – Hilary Mantel’s The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher.

Unlike Norman Tebbitt or the Daily Mail, I have no problem with the subject matter. As a story it’s interesting because you know exactly what the main event in the story is because of the title, but it still remains a compelling read, as the narrator considers the implications of what an intruder to her home is planning to do. It’s the most dramatic story on the list, as well as being the most thought provoking but Mantel makes it much more than a polemic. The level of detail and description slowly draws you in as it moves towards the ending, and it’s as much about how the narrator relates to the intruder as it is about how they both relate to the then Prime Minister.

I was a little underwhelmed in the characters at the heart of Jonathan Buckley’s Briar Road, recounting a visit by a clairvoyant to a family whose daughter is missing and are seeking clues as to whether she is alive or dead. The characters felt a little underdeveloped and a bit predictable, apart from the clairvoyant. She was very matter of fact about her skills, and she was certainly a perceptive narrator, picking up on small details from the house and the family dynamics and using it to crack open emotion at the heart of this sad story. The final scenes in which she converses alone with the mother were beautifully understated and created a very powerful story.

The characters felt much more interesting and well-round in Mark Haddon’s Bunny, the story of a morbidly obese man with an increasingly restricted worldview. The opening paragraphs were a riotously sensuous description of different foods, seducing the reader (it made me feel hungry, at any rate) before launching into the story of Bunny’s life. It was a warm story, with plenty of empathy for the two characters at the heart of the story, who were damaged by relations with other family member in different ways. It was one of those stories about what happens when two very different characters together, saving the real action for the very sad ending.

Broderie Anglaise by Frances Levison also had beautifully drawn characters. It’s about the tension that emerges between a woman and her mother as they prepare to go to a relative’s wedding. There are some wonderful turns of phrase and wry observations, and the excellent supporting characters don’t overwhelm the relationship that lies at the heart of this story. The premise is simple and allows Levison to focus on her characters and allow them to air grievances that have built up between them. There’s a wonderful interplay between the two of them that leads up to what I thought what was a killer line to finish up on that summed up not only the whole story but also their relationship.

The funniest story on the list was easily Do It Now, Jump The Table by Jeremy Page. It’s about a man who travels to Wales to spend the weekend with his girlfriends very bohemian parents and the tensions that result, between the man and his girlfriend and her parents. It was a little obvious where it was going, but that just added to the discomfort felt on behalf of the narrator. Given the bohemian nature of the couple (I really don’t want to give it away) there was just the right amount of description, and it was a wonderfully subtle piece that managed to stay grounded in reality. I also think that out of the shortlist, Page managed to make his title work hardest.

Overall, I think my favourite story was Do It Now, Jump The Table – I’m going to be honest and admit that in part it’s because of my preference for humorous stories,. But the characters were well drawn and the writing had a wonderful understated quality. There was a line that Page could have crossed to push the parents into a ridiculous figures but he managed to stay just the right side of the line to create something funny and warm.

That said, they are are all worth checking out, and you can find all five shortlisted entries being read on the Radio 4 website here.

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About James Holden

Brought up in Yorkshire, James has washed up on the shores of London. He spends his days working as a political geek. His short stories have previously been read by the Liars League.
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