The BBC National Short Story Award 2010

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The BBC National Short Story Award 2010, Jon McGregor,  Sarah Hall, David Constantine,  James Naughtie, book review2010 was the fifth year for the BBC National Short Story Award, one of the world’s most prestigious prizes for the genre. The book includes the winning short story, the runner-up and three others. The stories are presented in alphabetical order of the authors, and by coincidence the first one is also the winning one. The authors are all British, but one of the stories is set in Africa. They concern love affairs, family relationships and the plight of a man living alone in an unusual situation.

The collection opens with David Constantine’s “Tea at the Midland”, the winning entry. James Naughtie praises it in part for its brevity; the story is in fact only just over seven pages long, and within these seven pages are just ten paragraphs. I can understand why this was the winner of the ward, even though it wasn’t a story that I personally enjoyed. Constantine gives us a wonderfully descriptive picture of the setting, after which he introduces his two characters. I was rather surprised that he refers to them simply as “the woman” and “the man”. They are having an affair, but in the story they are sitting having afternoon tea and begin to argue over a piece of artwork. The atmosphere becomes more and more unpleasant. Constantine’s style is particularly eloquent, but I just don’t enjoy reading about such tense situations.

Although Constantine’s story did not particularly appeal to me, Aminatta Forno’s “Haywards Heath” was one that I found very poignant. It is another very brief story at just under ten pages. Attila, a consultant at a London hospital, goes to visit the woman that he was in love with many years before. She is now being looked after in a home in Haywards Heath. Forno’s style is very readable, a combination of descriptive passages and dialogue. It is hard to say much more about the story without giving too much away, but the ending is a touching one.

Had I been on the panel of judges, I think I may well have chosen Sarah Hall’s “Butcher’s Perfume” as the winner. It didn’t appeal to me right from the outset, and I even took a break from it at one point. This is a first-person narrative centring around a teenage girl who makes friends with the school bully. Kathleen, the narrator, lives with her widowed father but spends increasing amounts of time with the family of her new friend, Manda. Hall gives us a perceptive portrayal of this north-country family who love horses. Hall’s language is at times very blunt, but also wonderfully descriptive. About three-quarters of the way through, the story takes a turn and gathers momentum. It’s not an easy read but it is a compelling one.

“…it’s quite likely that you will discover a new author here whose novels you can then go on to enjoy.”

Having read and thoroughly enjoyed Jon McGregor’s first novel, “If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things”, I was particularly interested in reading his contribution to the collection. His story “If It Keeps On Raining” received the runner-up prize in the 2010 awards. Written mainly in the present tense, it is about a man who lives alone beside a river. He observes the people that he sees going past in boats or perhaps fishing on the other side of the river. He also watches the weather very carefully. It is an unusual and particularly creative story; whereas the other stories in the collection concern relationships in some respect, McGregor’s focuses on a single man. This is a man who is always in the same place, but he has time to watch everything around him and wonder about the future.

The collection concludes with Helen Oyeyemi’s “My Daughter the Racist.” Oyeyemi is the youngest of the five authors, and her story is a first-person narrative set in an African village where there is a strong presence of foreign soldiers. A widowed mother observes her daughter’s reaction towards the soldiers; one of them admires her bravery when she pelts their vehicle with stones. He becomes acquainted with the family, but such a thing is not accepted in the village. Oyeyemi’s style is very readable and it is tinged with the sense that this is a non-native speaker. It offers a fascinating insight into attitudes of the villagers; the setting is in sharp contrast to the rest of the stories in the collection.

The panel of judges for the award consisted of writers Shena Mackay, Kamila Shamsie and Owen Sheers, as well as Di Speirs and James Naughtie of the BBC. Naughtie has written the preface to the collection. At the end of the book there are biographical notes on each of the authors.

Whilst not all the stories in the collection may appeal to you, there is sufficient variety for most people to enjoy something here. Whether it’s the nostalgia of “Haywards Heath” or the vivid portrayal of a family and friendship in “Butcher’s Perfume”, the writing is of a superb quality. Short stories are ideal for me as I so seldom have time to read a full-length novel. For those who do devote a lot of time to reading, it’s quite likely that you will discover a new author here whose novels you can then go on to enjoy.

My thanks to author Jon McGregor for sending me a free copy of the book.

The BBC National Short Story Award 2010
by David Constantine, Aminatta Forna, Sarah Hall,
Jon McGregor and Helen Oyeyemi
Comma Press, 2010

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The BBC National Short Story Award 2010
by David Constantine, Aminatta Forna, Sarah Hall, Jon McGregor and Helen Oyeyemi

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Written by frangliz

I have a degree in Fine Art but never actually worked in that field. After almost two years in Paris, I moved to Cairo and spent many years there teaching English language and literature in schools. I came back to the UK in 1999 and now work with young children. I also tutor students of all ages in French, English or Maths. I enjoy writing reviews in my spare time; another hobby of mine is photography. I have two sons who are now grown up, both working in IT.

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