This quarter’s report is by Alison Woodhouse
It was an absolute honour to judge this quarter’s round and a delight to read such a varied range of writing, both stylistically and topically. Congratulations to everyone who made the long and short list, and indeed everyone who entered. I knew my task wasn’t going to be easy as soon as I read the short list, and over the last couple of weeks I’ve been moving stories up and down and swopping the placings. However, after multiple readings there were six that consistently stayed up there, then five, four and finally three. Judging comes down to such slight margins once a story is on the short list, be it language, rhythm, titles, voice, and of course that bit of fairy dust that gives the reader a frisson of excitement, perhaps a recognition of something that seems truthful and illuminating in this wonderfully weird thing we do, which is making things up! Once I’d got down to my final six, the questions I asked each story was what lingers? What’s happening off the page? What makes me come back again and again, deepening my connection to the story? So, a massive congratulations to the prize winners, and three highly commended, all of whom have written marvellous stories that will stay with me for a long time.
First Prize: All the tiny shiny things
The passive voice, immediately at odds with the eviscerating opening sentence, is beautifully maintained throughout and it was a wise choice to address the absent lover as ‘you’, intimate yet distant as he remains unnamed, uninvolved. Written in first person, the narrator allows the story to unfold through memories that connect emotional abuses and absences. I loved the specificity in this story, the physical details ‘she’d stop in mid-sentence to chew a jagged hangnail’, the mordant humour ‘when people put items on the belt … I wonder if they’re fixing to cut up a body … and watch them for signs of unease.’ Perfectly judged images such as ‘a cigarette-burn sunset’ tell us so much about the life of this narrator off the page. The car, named in the first paragraph as an Escalade, is one I was unfamiliar with, but was delighted to discover also means an act of scaling especially the walls of a fortification. That sort of attention to detail, not just calling it a Cadillac, elevates the story. Finally, the rising crescendo of the final paragraph, the note change, the way the writing speeds up with the repetition of ‘I know’, ‘I know’, then ‘I knew’, laced with references to storms, wolves, blood, and innocence, is wonderful.
Second prize: Made do and mend
My choice for second prize is a story that grew and grew on me the more I read it. There’s an immersive quality, like the attention of the narrator as they sit by the bedside of the wounded/sick/dying man, that I really enjoyed. The deliberate vagueness, no specific time or place or war (although there are many clues that indicate post 2nd World War), and the elements of magical realism, adds depth to a timeless story but what really works here for me is how well the story is structured, a neat reflection of the narrator’s stitching skills. Every image, colour, action is earned and relevant, so the ‘leaves unfurling on the hawthorn tree’ are echoed in the ‘shape of a tiny newsprung leaf’, the scraps the narrator stores become treasure they will use, and the abilities the narrator has to ‘snip the fraying seams of his spirit’ are what ‘mends’ the man. The story progresses in stages, from the wonderful description of ‘he startles like a baby, arms flung out,’ through to ‘his skin is thinning, pulling loose at the seams …bits of him are unravelling along his hairline’ and finally, ‘there is so much here to save’; a satisfying running metaphor that links the title, the opening, and the ending, with many memorable images along the way.
Third prize: High Time
My third choice is a hermit crab flash that uses a menu to tell the story, leading to a surprise finale that I didn’t expect. It’s not, however, a one trick pony. The author skilfully intertwines the present and past in perfect details as the daughter, now an adult, takes her mother out to tea and unleashes memories ‘so strong you can taste them’. I loved the evocation of the mother/daughter relationship through food; the (irrepressible) mother states tartare sauce is ‘salad cream got up with fancy ideas’ and butter is described ‘in rippled curls that turn in on themselves, like the feelings of shame she gifted you’. The complexity of their ongoing responsibility and perhaps, residual care, is captured in ‘creamed meringue as brittle as her, easily shattered if carelessly handled’. The daughter is given no voice in this aptly one-sided story and addressed throughout as ‘you’. I found the ending very poignant and couldn’t help imagining what she might have said, whilst realising the impossibility of saying anything at all.
I’d like to mention the three other stories I kept coming back to, all wonderful. Gummy Bears, two breathless paragraphs that really painted a picture of sibling cruelty and quiet revenge that was very satisfying; Mother, 1982, which had an excellent voice in a stream of consciousness lament; and Time to go, which captures the moment of receiving shockingly bad news in a breathless paragraph that swirls the narrator back to a childhood memory of intense emotion. Congratulations to all three.