The shortlist of five has been announced for the 2015 BBC National Short Story Award (NSSA) and were broadcast on R4 last week. You can still listen to all five stories and below there are links, along with my thoughts on each one.
Did you enter? This time round I didn't bother because as you can see from the shortlist the standard is incredibly high, dominated by well known writers. The winner gets £15,000, along with substantial publicity, which explains why some very successful writers enter this competition (runner-up gets £3,000 and the others all get £500). So you need to enter your very BEST story and then be prepared to tie it up for six months. One plus is there's no entry fee, but you do need to have publishing credits, which again encourages the professional writers to enter. Earlier this year I made the final 50 long list for the Bath Short Story Award - and was pretty chuffed about that. The top prize was £1000 and there was an entry fee of £8, yet there were >1000 entries compared to 439 for the BBC NSSA, which again says something about the field entering the NSSA. The maximum word count for the NSSA is 8,000 - high for a competition, so you do need a longer story as clearly you will need to fill a 25 minute slot on Radio 4 ... So will I have a go in 2016? Hmm, I'm thinking about it, but don't yet have a short story long enough. Clearly, first person narration works well for an audio story, so that's another thing to consider. This could be a new goal for me post the MA dissertation ...
If you plan to listen to these then I'd recommend not reading the blurb that goes with them on R4 - it does spoil the experience a little.
Briar Road by Jonathan Buckley (read by Maine Peake)
A well constructed and written story, subtle yet powerful. The first person narration is lifted by the skilful reading of Maxine Peake. Which did make me ponder on how much the chosen reader can enhance the story? This story totally absorbed me from the opening sentence to the very end. I can find it difficult to concentrate on audio stories, but this one mesmerised me. My coffee went cold. Highly recommended.
Bunny by Mark Haddon (read by Colin Buchanan)
There were changes in point of view, which I'm not a fan of in a short story, but for the narrative the changes were important. At first I thought there was nothing new in the theme of this story and then the ending came as a total shock. The final tragic 'twist' lifts the story, explaining how it made it to the shortlist. Unnerving.
Broderie Anglaise by Frances Leviston (read by Kate O'Flynn)
Another first person narration, read engagingly by Kate O'Flynn. But even the humour didn't keep me engaged. I've listened to this twice now and drifted off both times. It points to tensions in a family relationship, but possibly was too subtle for me and I may have missed its hidden depths.
The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel (read by Rebekah Staton)
You may have already heard this version, as it was broadcast towards the end of 2014 when R4 serialised some of the collection (same title). Cynically, one could think the BBC saved a bit of dosh by re-using the recording... Again this is first person narration, though starts off sounding almost omniscient pov. Clever device to re-imagine a real past event and consequently the reader/listener can't predict the outcome. When I sat to listen again to this story I couldn't remember the ending. Even now I couldn't tell you how it ends - I remember the theme, but little else. Enough said.
Do it now, jump the table by Jeremy Page (read by Blake Ritson)
I would definitely read more of Jeremy Page after listening to this entry. The story leaps right in with a lively third person narration. Delightfully comic and yet tender, gentle and bittersweet. I was fully engaged and enjoyed every minute of this story. Highly recommended.
My favourites for the top prize are: 'Briar Road' and 'Do it now, jump the table'. These are the stories that lingered longest with me. I'm a huge fan of Hilary Mantel and her writing, but I don't think 'The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher' is her best. To be honest it felt bit of a gimmick - the controversial theme certainly must have helped to promote and sell her collection (published 2014). I don't know if the stories are read anonymously (up to shortlist stage), but if you know anything about the short story world you'd instantly recognise Hilary Mantel's story from its title ... Let's wait and see who takes the prize this year ...