Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 1 August 2020

"Bath Short Story Award 2018" (Adhoc, 2018)

My impression is that that meta-fiction doesn't do well in competitions. Strong (even quirky) voices do.

  • The tank - To escape a bush fire a couple get into a water tank. They can't escape it, and have to keep swimming. We learn about them as they pass the time and wonder what to do. The action flicks to others who the couple think about, and who might save them.
  • Off-ground summer - A very plotty piece, though not lacking in observation. It's in the first-person. Dan (maybe 10-ish?) sees new US neighbours move in. He becomes friendly with the girl, Suzie. Her father's a pilot. She's impressed when he tells her that his older brother Pete died a year before. His mother still can't go into Pete's room. Dan's only been in once. Dan thinks that Mr Bruce, a neighbour, ran him over. One night in her new tree house they hatch a plan - Dan will dress like Pete's ghost in Mr Bruce's garden. Mr Bruce sees him, gets in his car and kills himself. Dan tells his mother that Mr Bruce killed Pete. She says that actually he was the one who found him and never got over it. Suzie soon leaves. Dan cries on Pete's bed - for Pete? for Mr Bruce? for Suzie? His mother stands at the door. He hugs her. The final sentence is - "I can't remember the last time I'd hugged her, but I know she was bigger then - or maybe, in the summer, I'd grown."
  • Sea defences - Here's the first section: "I'm in the police station. Again. But this time it's different because of the shoe. And because Mumma's not here. Normally she waits outside while they tell me off about my job (you can't keep doing this, Michael) and then we get chips and go home.
    Mumma was trying to save me, but she couldn't. There was blood and mud on her face, and her eyes were shut. Her skirt was up round the top of her legs and they put a blanket on her and took her to hospital. There was an ambulance and three police cars and blue lights flashing
    ". The main character spends his time looking after children because of the death of a child a few years before. As the sea was destroying their home, a red shoe appeared that he'd hidden. It had belonged to Hannah, who'd been carried away by the sea as he was showing her humanoid footprints exposed by storms. His mother fell trying to recover the shoe before the police found it. At the end we learn that she's died.
  • Blue suede shoes - While in a coffee bar Irena sees her boyfriend of 3 years ago, an orchestra leader who used to kick her. I saw little in the piece, perhaps because I'm not keen on the sort of writing on p.34 - metaphors like "he would furiously tear away the cocoon they had spun around themselves", and the description of his behaviour that uses music analogies - "Fortissimo" etc. Yet the writing's described as "exquisite".
  • Witches sail in eggshells - The female narrator, 18 or so, has a brief intense affair with an attractive, difficult stranger, Kezia, encouraged by her friend and workmate Meg. Two years later Kezia presumptiously reappears. The narrator ejects her quickly, realising that the reliable long-term friendship of Meg means more. Seemed a minor tale to me.
  • The other couple - A couple are on holiday at the beach. The wife (who's lost a baby?) repeatedly sees an old, content couple, and then sees some mothers with kids at the beach. Thinking the old woman's walk into the sea, she walks in to save her. Her husband rescues her. They're alone on the beach. It's a telegraphed plot that's been used before, and the implementation's nothing special. I'm puzzled.
  • Down in the mud on Limehouse beach - A 73 y.o. woman who used to work in a sugar factory, has several dead friends and likes repeating adjectives, searches the Thames mud for stories rather than treasures. She seeks to educate spectators. An interestingly quirky voice and world-view.
  • Educating Susan - It's Susan's first day in an Australian school. She's from England. The male teacher makes fun of her accent. She has to decide whether to keep her accent or learn a new one. Her class-aware mother can no longer assess class merely by how people speak, and want Susan to keep her accent. Susan doesn't agree.
  • Hikikomori - Kenji's mother, Azumi, leaves a meal outside his bedroom that he's not left for 248 days, not since he left for Tokyo University and returned after a day. She tells an acquaintance that he's travelling around Europe. She writes a note to him on an origami bird, asking him to come down for a meal and promising to keep all the lights off. By candle-light, silently, they eat (she's put out Ricicles, Pop Tarts and Coco-Pops) and he returns to his room. Not enough for me.
  • Kassidee - It begins in media res. "The facts are these", we're told 2 pages in, "Kathleen died in bloody childbirth, and Aunt Eleanor helped ensure that she wasn't buried at her mother's feet in a tiny casket of her own. Everything else is a gift to the Irish storyteller". The girl, now 7, crosses a field, is told off and chased by the farmer who throws her in the air. It's mock anger - he's her father who walks with her to see the countryside from the top of a hill/mountain. He tells her how horrible London is, how kids have to clean chimneys. An old friend, hollow-cheeked, tells her father "It has returned. Worse than ever. The stench - my God, the stench!". After a few months her father has "deep, rasping breaths" and there's potato blight.
  • Nanook's Igloo - I'd have given this a prize. At first it's unclear who "I" and "you" are. "You" liked watching a docudrama about an Inuk man. "You" could be the therapist of the suicidal narrator, who says "I knew if I could only break through the glass I could re-connect. Smash through the barrier. I was trying to re-enter my life not lose it." The glass is the screen she Skypes him with. It's also the igloo made by an artist. In the hospital where the narrator first met "you" there's a cold room where dead bodies are stored. At the end the narrator has plans - "Tonight, when everyone is asleep, I shall go back to the hospital ... I will climb into one of the deep drawers, slide myself in next to the other dead bodies ... Not smashing through the glass but becoming part of it. Brittle. Transparent."
  • Pairing - The narrator finds a single wireless ear-bud (a "shiny white tadpole") in the street. It plays evocative music to suit each occasion. He imagines a woman with the other ear-bud, the sort of things they'd say to each other. The ending is "Forever after, people will ask us how we met and we will fight over who gets to tell the story, but in the end she will always win, and she will always say, I was walking along listening to half a song, and the last sun lay on the water like coming home, and I saw a man about to set a tadpole free". I like much of it.
  • The court order - The first-person narrator is a separated father who sees his 7 y.o. son once a week. He drives him to the coast for a treat. He stops at a service station for a coffee, leaving his son in the car. Surprise, surprise, his son's gone when he returns. Eventually he sees his son come out of the toilets.
  • The dresser's apprentice - The 12 y.o. narrator works for his uncle, smartening up the dead to be photographed for the records in a war zone. At the dead he's smartened up, photographed and put in a coffin so he can be smuggled out to somewhere safe.
  • The maze game - It's Helen's story - 3rd person but we're in her head. She's had periods in hospital, she attends therapy sessions, likes patterns. Her brother died in an accident when he was little, at the hands of the father. She could have prevented it. The maze game was a game she invented when Peter was 4. On the beach she'd draw a maze around herself and make Peter find her. Phrases are repeated - "Draw a happy time", "To care for something, Helen", "Door, Lennie, door!", "Draw yourself as you really are, Helen". I like it.
  • The plates of strangers - A mother's leaving her adolescent daughter in a residential home. The daughter has an unknown mental condition. She'll be with Down's Syndrome kids and children with various other issues. She notices that "the residents talk of their parents as though they're pleasant acquaintances they used to know well. They are more interested in stall and each other, which gives the mother hope." When the mother leaves, there are indications that she's not 100% - she buys a dismembered hand at a joke shop and asks a barman out.
  • The river is always right - A middle aged couple stay in a cabin that's in the middle of a river supported by 4 stone columns. They've brought a box. "You placed the box on a small folding table and we looked at it. We'd waited so long for the right moment, the right place, and now I realised I didn't want to let go of the waiting." As they sleep, the foundations weaken. They escape just as the cabin's washed away. They hadn't time to save the box. The last sentence is the narrator saying "The river has taken it, and it's only right. The river is always right." I'm not convinced - contrived mystery.
  • The shopkeeper's wife - The first-person narrator is Matilda, 29 with 3 kids, married to Bobby, a shopkeeper for 10 years. She thinks things like "Her sermons are rapturous and she reminds me of a fervent dominee from one of the valley's churches"; "Ma sometimes says, in her semi-lucid moments, that life is like a join-the-dots puzzle. The dots are the facts of your life. The line you put through them - the story you tell - either joins them all together in a way that makes a pretty picture or gives you a jumble"; "Hardship and parenthood had layered experience on top of us, fossilising the people we once were so that, while we would be recognisable to someone who knew us ten years ago, the essence of the person we fell in love with as a teenager only remained in its hardest, most inaccessible form". I think that if you're going to use such inauthentic diction, you might as well do something better than this with the freedom you've given yourself. It doesn't work for me.
  • Unravelling - On the Black Sea coast a soldier boy, off to war, asked his grandmother to knit him some socks. She had to unravel a red item to get the wool. When he died in action she blamed herself for making him an easy target. 25 years later, while waiting for his remains to be returned to the house, she's told that his body was identified in a mass grave (the result of an atrocity) only because of the socks.
  • The museum of dead crows - A boy does the cooking etc round the house now that his mother's gone. He's bullied at school. He traps and kills birds, hanging them in a secret place in the woods. Failing a maths test, he scrunches up the page from his exercise book and puts it in a bird's mouth. At the end of each day, in bed, he thinks through the events, feeling best about the ones he's in control of.

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