Book review – BBC National Short Story Award 2008

This is a collection of the five shortlisted stories for the 2008 BBC National Short Story Award. It’s a prestigious competition so naturally the standard of writing in all five stories was very high, even though some were more interesting to me than others.

First up was Guidelines for Measures to cope with Disgraceful and Other Events by Richard Beard. It’s a wonderful parody of a bureaucratic memo delivered to a member of the European parliament who has been caught having an affair. The memo outlines the various options open to him, and in evaluating the pros and cons of each option (denial/concealment/confession, etc.) the story is gradually told. It’s a very clever piece of writing, all in the second person, and with a very satisfying ending. My only problem with it was that the story itself felt a little too familiar – the selfish politician hooking up with a young woman to escape his rich but dull wife. The manner of the telling, though, was masterly.

The People on Privilege Hill didn’t grab me very much. The introduction calls it a comedy of manners, but the people whose manners it mocks are almost extinct. Modern Britain is a world away from this quaint village of canapes and souffles and retired judges getting all steamed up over not much happening at a lunch party. Maybe that’s unfair. Maybe it’s just a long way from the Britain I know as a (relatively) young Londoner. To me the story and the characters in it felt remote, but possibly the characters in my book would feel remote to people of a different background or generation. In any case, the writing was good enough for me to speed through it quite pleasantly, even if it won’t linger in the memory.

Surge by Erin Soros had a very simple premise: some boys in a remote logging settlement decide to climb a 300ft surge tank. It’s really just a childhood adventure, but the sense of danger is really well communicated. Throughout the story there is the ominous presence of abandoned houses that Japanese families had been forced to leave behind – presumably when they were taken to internment camps, placing the story in World War Two, although this is never stated. In the end, the danger comes from an unexpected source, and the relationship with the two siblings is really well drawn.

I think I was a bit distracted when I read The Names by Adam Thorpe. It was an interesting story of an old bottle in France with the names of people who had been in a cafe during the war when the SS walked in looking for someone to take them to a resistance camp, took out one of the men to act as a guide, and shot him when he couldn’t find it. I say I was distracted because although the story was not complicated at all, I seemed to keep losing the thread and having to reread pages. I also didn’t really see the connection with the contemporary story of a Swedish man living in the far north among the Sami, except that he bought the bottle from a beautiful French girl when he was young and I suppose he shot it as a way of letting go of his childish fantasy of going back to find her again.

Last story is The Numbers by Claire Wigfall, set on a tiny Scottish island – perhaps a century or so ago, although it was hard to tell. It’s a fascinating insight into island life, and feels completely real. The “numbers” theme of the title is given a lot of play at the beginning, as we are told the narrator learnt numbers well at school and came to think through numbers – but this is more or less dropped later on, except for numbers being used unexpectedly instead of words (e.g. “…his wife and his 3 young 1s”). I liked the feeling of the story, especially the unusual words (“He came on a gustery afternoon”), and there was a good twist at the end.

Oddly, the book didn’t mention who the winner was, but from the website I discovered it was Clare Wigfall for The Numbers.

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