Costa Book AwardsSix short stories have been shortlisted and made available here for the public to judge the winner. Voting closes this coming Wednesday. So, if you wish to become a self-appointed judge, you need to be quick. You may either download the stories to read or listen to the audio recordings.

I spent an enjoyable Friday evening reading these six stories and this post is my judging process laid bare. I’ll discuss the stories in the sequence they are published on the Costa site, revealing my winner at the end. I won’t attempt to guess who wrote what or make comparisons with other things read. The stories shall be judged in their own individual merits. That, I suppose,is the entire point of publishing them anonymously.

Dislocation

“There’s something about the Le Brocquy. Those three naked bodies. That malevolent-eyed cat. Picasso-like figures: greyish, angular, precisely placed. The woman lying on a bed, the man sitting at the end of it, the small boy standing halfway between them at the side, holding up a spray of flowers. And the cat, staring out from under the sheet covering the woman’s thighs… “

Right awaŷ, a story full of things I enjoy. Art and some very long German words! Set in provincial East Germany, the young narrator is revealed to be a fatherless boy whose uncle acts as a surrogate. Childhood innocence is gradually replaced with awareness of political realities and his own limitations. His ambitions are thwarted when he repeatedly fails the entrance exam to art school. Following the arrest of one of his acquaintances, the fall of the wall and his escape to Berlin, he discovers that seemingly casual conversations were anything but.

In preserving the innocence of the narrator’s youth throughout the telling, this story reveals its secrets gradually. The Le Brocquy painting proves to be a framing device and a fitting symbol for the boy’s familial relationships. 7/10

Don’t Try This At Home)

“I cut my boyfriend in half; it was what we both wanted. I said we could double our time together. He said he could be twice as productive. I don’t think it would have worked with just anyone at any time. It had to be now. Daniel got a spade off his mother that had belonged to his father, and his father – both men who were never really all there. He lay on the bench in our microscopic back yard, knees bent to squeeze in. The yard was carpeted with silver slug trails. I suppose we could have used the kitchen floor, but I didn’t want to scratch the tiles… “

Best opening line of the six immediately capturing my interest. A fantastic and entertaining premise which is sustained throughout, even though it’s hard to keep tabs on all the Daniels – because the splitting doesn’t end with the first experiment. There are many reasons why this narrator needs more and more men in her life and the original Daniel is always happy to oblige. There are, of course, entirely unexpected and unintended consequences, though none are catastrophic. It’s debatable whether there is any morale to the story – if so, then the brushstrokes are incredibly light. Anything else would destroy its quirkiness.  7/10

Millie and Bird

“It was the kind of summer when the grass grew too long to cut and your toes stubbed at the damp end of your trainers, the summer I was sixteen. It rained all through May and June. It rained on my birthday. It never let up and the weeds in the yard grew taller than the gate post. Jonty Angel, our next-door neighbour, gave Millie the bird that summer, a white zebra finch, and she spent all her time coaxing it onto her shoulder, whispering to it and feeding it titbits. He gave her a cage too and she put it in her bedroom out of harm’s way. It was the summer of Bird, it was the summer I fell in love…”

…. And it was a summer of dark undertones. The mood of this story fluctuates as the 16 year-old narrator introduces us to the reality of life with an alcoholic mother. Happiness for her and her younger sister comes from sources outwith the family home: a boyfriend or a watchful friendly-neighbour. Inside the home the two girls walk on eggshells and everything depends on their mother’s mood and the vodka supply. Is she zonked out on the couch or is this a declared happy family day?

One such day leads to a picnic in the back garden. Given the family history, a mood swing is inevitable and it can’t end well. Even so, the ending is shocking in a blot out of the blue way. It felt rushed, not very well prepared and left this reader asking far too many questions to be satisfying. 6/10

Mown Grass

“‘But,’ said Kathleen Stanbridge, ‘there remains the question of Robinson.’ She was with her two daughters, in the well-shelved library of the family country home that, after long wranglings, she had decided – though God knew it would probably kill her – had to be sold. They had agonised over the sale, she and her daughters, Tessa and Ginny, but in the end, it really seemed the only option…”

Now here’s a story that fully realises the characters, motivations and actions of its not insignificant and, in places, unsympathetic cast. There’s quite an extended timeframe with jumps in and out of the present. Multiple locations and viewpoints also. But no readerly confusion, demonstrating just how much can be packed into a short story without it feeling cluttered.

The story isn’t original but then there are many unhappy families in the world. It reads well and even manages to pack a surprising but entirely satisfying Roald Dahlesque sting in the tail. 8/10

Small Town Removal

 

“There is heat, here in this small town. A dead heat. It sulks in the valley, as blue storms build, up beyond the grey ridge. It is the kind that clings to you and smothers your breath. Down here by the canal there is no wind. Along the lane, the thick water slides past cows stretched out on tufts of sun-shorn rushes and wet meadow. The banks are crumbling, spilling earth into the cut. The water is sluggish out among the fields, but closer to the town it has the pace of tides… “

An estranged son returns to home town for his father’s funeral. It is a time for memories of his family life and for observation of the town that he left behind. I found nothing particularly earth-shattering or interesting in the storŷ. For this is a piece with strength in its use of descriptive language. Precise, accurate and atmospheric it may be, but within a page or two, I found the adjectival overload and static pace irritating. Couldn’t get to the end of this one fast enough. 5/10

Trompette de la Mort

“Most of the women were enraptured by the thick, black-haired Charles, who was the supremo baritone of the distillery men’s choir, shuffling their chairs forward to be close enough for when he reached for that inevitable high note. But Bernard with his crooked smile and his pink tongue peeking out underneath his bushy moustache…my palms would sweat at the thought of that bristles creeping along my skin, the swift flick of his tongue against a nipple…”

What have I established thus far? That I’m looking for a balance of plot, symbolism and precise, though not overblown language. I also like surprises when they feel intrinsic – and not tacked onto – the story. This story ticks all those boxes.

It is a love story. It is a lust story. It is a story of singers and mushroom pickers. And if you ever wondered about the symbolic and seductive nature of the caramel of his tones or even a chanterelle, then wonder no more. You’ll also gain insight into the destructive lack of self-esteem in the morbidly obese. An intense tale that fosters compulsive page-turning and vote-casting. 9/10

Will you be casting a vote? If so, where and why?

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