D.W. Wilson, ‘The Dead Roads’ (2010)

On to David Wilson’s winning story, which is now available to read on the Guardian website. It tells of a road trip taken across Canada by Duncan (our narrator), Vic (his girlfriend – when she’s not at university, at least), and their old school-friend Animal Brooks. Tensions build among the trio as Duncan realises that he might be about to lose Vic when she returns to university, where he can’t follow; and he starts to wonder, too, whether Animal is getting too close to Vic.

Out of all the shortlisted stories, I think this one creates the strongest atmosphere. There’s a wonderfully sharp edge to Wilson’s prose that complements the harsh bleakness of the setting. I’m particularly impressed with how the secondary characters leap off the page, even though Duncan’s voice is so strong itself; for example, I loved the initial description of Animal Brooks:

He was twenty-six and hunted looking, with engine-grease stubble and red eyes sunk past his cheekbones. In his commie hat and Converses he had that hurting lurch, like a scrapper’s swag, dragging foot after foot with his knees loose and his shoulders slumped. He’d drink a garden hose under the table if it looked at him wrong…

‘The Dead Roads’ is a deserving winner, to my mind, and makes me keen to read more of Wilson’s work. I see that he’s had a collection, Once You Break a Knuckle, published in Canada this month; I think it will be worth investigating.

This is one of a series of posts reviewing the shortlist for the 2011 BBC National Short Story Award. Click here to read my other posts on the Award.

K.J. Orr, ‘The Human Circadian Pacemaker’ (2010)

The first of two entries on the shortlist by PhD students, Katherine Orr’s piece concerns Eleanor Francis, the British wife of an American astronaut freshly back from space. The couple’s opening exchange, as Eleanor greets her husband on his return, sets the tone for the rest of the story:

‘How are you?’ she said.

A lop-sided smile. ‘I’m A-OK.’

‘So what have you been up to?’

‘Stuff,’ he said. ‘You?’

‘Oh, stuff.’

All manner of possible sights and experiences are subsumed under the word ‘stuff’, as an indication that Eleanor and her husband (whose name we never learn) don’t know how to talk about what has happened. ‘The Human Circadian Pacemaker’ is an exploration of the ways in which the couple have become dislocated from life and each other. The rhythms of the astronaut’s body-clock are off, so he’s asleep in the daytime and awake at night; he also finds it easier to talk to his fellow-astronauts than to his wife (that Eleanor only knows his colleagues by their nicknames further emphasises her distance from that world). In her turn, the life Eleanor knew was disrupted when she had to move to the US; now that her husband has changed, she’s losing that one anchor she had. But, towards the end of the story, Eleanor finds a place and circumstance that may allow her to understand something of what her man has been through.

Orr handles her theme very well, right down to the fragmented structure of the narrative. The author’s biography in the back of the anthology says that she is working on a story collection; on the evidence of this piece, it should be interesting.

This is one of a series of posts reviewing the shortlist for the 2011 BBC National Short Story Award. Click here to read my other posts on the Award.

Jon McGregor, ‘Wires’ (2011)

This is the second year running in which Jon McGregor has been shortlisted for the Award, which would be notable in itself; but, more than that, it’s also the second time in a row that has been runner-up. I very much liked McGregor’s nominated story last year; and he’s written another superb piece in this time around. ‘Wires’ is the story of a student named Emily Wilkinson who has an accident on the motorway when a sugar-beet smashes through her windscreen. Whilst waiting for the police to arrive, she dwells on her life, particularly her relationship with doctoral candidate Marcus, over which she has her doubts.

As with last year’s story, I’m struck by how completely McGregor evokes his protagonist’s mindset through his prose. The title of ‘Wires’ seemingly refers to neural pathways; and the rambling, jagged passages of narration evoke the feeling of a mind working than one can comprehend. Here, for example, is the opening of the story:

It was a sugar-beet, presumably, since that was a sugar-beet lorry in front of her and this thing turning in the air at something like sixty miles an hour had just fallen off it. It looked sort of like a giant turnip, and was covered in mud, and basically looked more or less like whatever she would have imagined a sugar-beet to look like if she’d given it any thought before now. Which she didn’t think she had. It was totally filthy. They didn’t make sugar out of that, did they? What did they do, grind it? Cook it?

All this and more goes through Emily’s mind before the sugar-beet even hits her car. Her thoughts flit from subject to subject in this way, with these lengthier passages punctuated by terser dialogue from the two men who saw Emily’s accident and have come to help; when they speak, the effect is of reality intruding in on the world of thought, in order to reassert itself.

McGregor also uses his narrative style to subtly suggest that maybe Emily hasn’t been left as unscathed by the incident as she had assumed. I’d say ‘Wires’ was a worthy runner-up, and will be interested to see how the winning story compares.

This is one of a series of posts reviewing the shortlist for the 2011 BBC National Short Story Award. Click here to read my other posts on the Award.

Alison MacLeod, ‘The Heart of Denis Noble’ (2011)

‘The Heart of Denis Noble’ was originally published in Litmus, an anthology of stories concerning key moments of scientific discovery. Denis Noble is Emeritus Professor of Cardiovascular Physiology at the University of Oxford, and pioneered virtual modelling of the human heart; he acted as an adviser to Alison MacLeod on the telling of this story, which sees a fictional Noble undergo a heart transplant, and dramatises episodes from the scientist’s earlier life and career.

I think this is a beautifully balanced piece of fiction. By turns, MacLeod’s prose has the precision of detail one would expect from a scientist’s viewpoint; and some wonderfully poetic moments, such as this, describing Noble’s earliest development:

Soon, the tube that was Denis Noble’s heart, a delicate scrap of mesoderm, would push towards life. In the dark of Ethel [Noble’s mother], it would twist and grope, looping blindly back towards itself in the primitive knowledge that circulation, the vital whoosh of life, deplores a straight line.

The story conveys both a sense of the demanding nature of Noble’s work (the computer he needs to use is only available between two and four in the morning, then it’s off to the slaughterhouse to buy a couple of sheeps’ hearts, before a twelve-hour day in the lab), and the scientist’s frustration at not being able to apprehend the true nature of love, for all his knowledge (“Where, he’d like to know, is love? How is love?”).

I could see this piece as an award-winner. Certainly it sets the bar high for the eventual runner-up and winner, both of which I’ve yet to read.

This is one of a series of posts reviewing the shortlist for the 2011 BBC National Short Story Award. Click here to read my other posts on the Award.

M.J. Hyland, ‘Rag Love’ (2010)

In 1960s Sydney, James Brailey (if that is his real name; it’s never confirmed) and his partner Trudy attempt to trick or bribe their way into a penthouse cabin on board the SS Oriana, so they can live out their fantasy of luxury for a short while, before the liner leaves port. I say ‘their’ fantasy, but it’s really Trudy’s; James has gone along with her dream because he loves her, even though he knows they can’t really afford the money they’re using as a bribe.

This is what M.J. Hyland does particularly well in ‘Rag Love’: to show that this act of apparently throwing cares to the wind masks a relationship under strain. James has doubts about Trudy’s feelings for him (“I was certain she’d want the money and the ocean cruise no matter what bloke she was with”), and Trudy seems to have little concern for anything beyond her immediate dream. That then sets up a tension over not only whether the couple’s plan will succeed, but also what will happen to their relationship with each other. I’m not sure that Hyland’s piece quite has the extra spark I’d hope to see from a story on an award shortlist, but it’s a good read nonetheless.

This is one of a series of posts reviewing the shortlist for the 2011 BBC National Short Story Award. Click here to read my other posts on the Award.

The BBC National Short Story Award 2011

Last night, 26-year-old David Wilson became the youngest-ever winner of the BBC National Short Story Award for his piece ‘The Dead Roads’. The five shortlisted stories were all broadcast on Radio 4 a couple of weeks ago (which, unfortunately, I missed); but now this year’s Award anthology has been launched, so now we have the chance to read them all. And, over the next couple of days, that’s just what I’m going to do.

First of all, an index:

The tiles above will become links as I review each story — three today, and the remaining two tomorrow. I’ll be working through the shortlist in alphabetical order of author, which means of course that I’ll get to the winner last (which should provide an interesting contrast to the experience of reading last year’s shortlist, where the winner came first alphabetically).

Enough preamble; off we go…

Further links
Podcasts of the shortlisted stories
The Award at BBC Radio 4
The Award at Booktrust
Comma Press, publishers of the anthology

Gavin James Bower, Made in Britain (2011)

Gavin James Bower’s 2009 debut, Dazed & Aroused, looked at the collapse of one man’s glamorous dream in the world of modelling; for his follow-up, Bower takes a few steps back to focus on the time in life when such dreams may begin to form. Made in Britain follows the lives of three Burnley teenagers about to sit their GCSEs, each with a notion that they need to escape their immediate circumstances.

Russell, academically-minded but also timid and bullied, could spread his wings if he moved in with his cousin Jason in Leeds and went to college there, but that would mean leaving his mother behind when she has no one else. Charlie, who has neither the time nor the will to contemplate A Levels, turns to drug-dealing as a means of raising the money his family so badly needs. And Hayley, who lives alone with her father after her mother died, dreams of being famous; love may even be on the cards – perhaps with Charlie, perhaps with Mr Mitchell, the teacher on whom she has a crush, and who might just reciprocate.

Made in Britain has a very clearly defined structure; every chapter consists of three scenes, one narrated by each of the three protagonists, in the same order (except the last chapter, where the order is reversed). For one thing, this allows Bower to reflect his novel’s concerns at the formal level, with the rigid structure representing the intractability of the characters’ situations. But it also proves effective as a storytelling device, as Bower juxtaposes different characters’ viewpoints (such as Charlie’s and Hayley’s contrasting ideas about each other), and has what may be key events for one protagonist take place in the background of another’s scene. There’s also this neat segue in the first chapter:

Life is transient, I think as I walk through my front door.
Love is forever.

Jenny’s passed out on my lap, a bottle of White Lightning in her cold, pale hand. [p. 8]

This nicely encapsulates the distance in the book between idealistic dreams and the hard realities of life for these characters. Bower nods towards the socio-economic factors which have contributed to their circumstances (Charlie: ‘I look out the window as we drive past the old shoe factory where Mum used to work, when she was about my age. It shut ages ago, course,’ p. 110); but his focus in general is primarily on the teenagers themselves – perhaps naturally enough, given that his protagonists have to deal with their immediate situations, and dwelling too much on the past isn’t necessarily going to help them.  The author makes clear what has caused all three of his protagonists to take their respective paths, and the difficulties they face; none of the three characters has a completely free hand, but they’re not entirely forced by circumstance into what they do, either. From that point of view, Made in Britain is a story of making what seems the best choice, and then dealing with the consequences.

Towards the end of the novel, Russell reflects on the difference between Burnley and the bigger local cities:

I love going to Leeds because, there, being different isn’t about listening to metal in your bedroom or, if you’re really brave, dyeing your hair a funny colour, like it is where I’m from. In cities like Leeds and Manchester, nobody looks at you funny or beats you up for being different – because there’s always someone who’s more different than you. You can just get on with being yourself. [pp. 146-7]

This is the real issue that the protagonists have with their lives in Burnley (if not necessarily with the town specifically): they don’t have the means to be the people they could be. Made in Britain asks what it is like to be at a point of transition in life when your situation makes it difficult to make any sort of change – and the book offers no easy answers.

Hackney Citizen interview with Gavin James Bower
Quartet Books
Some other reviews of Made in Britain: Helen J. Beal; Sophia Waugh for The Guardian.