Beauty in a Chaotic World: The Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology

('Long Ex'© Dave Cowley, 2010)




I am weary from the panic that grows inside of me. It is an unrelenting fever of anxiety that thrums through my veins.

The words are spoken by the unnamed protagonist in Meg Taite’s ‘The World Gravitates Towards the Ditch’, which won third place in this year’s Bristol Short Story Competition. The two sentences are in many ways a summary of the character’s personality, a manifesto from a person whose father killed himself by placing a lava lamp in a microwave and watching it explode. However, for many readers they may also resonate as a reflection of the current political climate, and a world that seems unusually full of instability and uncertainty.

In writing the introduction to the 2017 Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology, Joe Melia, the competition’s coordinator, notes that perhaps because of the ‘fractured, extreme state of recent worldwide political events’ the entries to this year’s competition included far fewer dystopian fictions. This is reflected in the twenty stories featured in the anthology, which focus not on elaborate calamities or cataclysmic events, but rather on more mundane, muted tragedies — the death of a brother, the souring of a relationship, the difficulties of being a parent.

Despite the fact that most of the stories revolve around a particular sadness, they studiously avoid being bogged down by a sense of misery. Thus, in Dima Alzayat’s first-place story ‘Ghusl’ we see Zaynab washing her brother’s body in a profound ritual following his death. Although the story is steeped in loss – a father tortured to death, a grandfather kidnapped, a brother murdered and a mother driven to silence by the horrific weight of it all – it is love that shines through the narrative. From the care with which Zaynab washes her brother’s body, to the men who volunteer to help her with her task, to the flashes of memories of a once happy family, it’s the strength of the ties binding people together that comes through most in ‘Ghusl’, even when the world around those people has gone horrifically wrong.

This idea is echoed in other stories in the collection. In Bunmi Ogunsiji’s ‘Things Carried Over’, Ore and his girlfriend experience their third miscarriage in a row. The kindness of Ore’s co-worker, Ravi, helps them to recover their relationship. In Clementine Ewokolo Burnley’s ‘A Place Called Out’ the protagonist finds hope just when her life seems to be dead-ending. In ‘ESO 378 Nebula’ a mother and son share a difficult relationship, but one that is also profoundly beautiful.

The stories in this collection are also bound together by how grounded they are in a particular moment, how exquisitely the prose captures the emotions and surroundings of a specific point in time. ‘At five o’clock, a strawberry sunrise had started its mastery over the fields and wall and trees and it was then that Pawlu and his boy Eman arrived on a cart with their mule,’ begins Amber Duivenvoorden’s ‘The Prickly Pears’. Duivenvoorden takes an unusual use of metaphor, the ‘strawberry sunrise’ with its ‘mastery over the fields’ and uses it to create vivid narrative that catapults the reader in the world she has created.

‘We weren’t walking long when we came to the clearing; beautiful like one of the places where witches live in books,’ narrates Conor Houghton’s protagonist in ‘Big Secrets Everybody Knows’. The haunting beauty evoked not only in this sentence but throughout the tale is perfect for a story that deftly manages to convey the confusion and violence of the troubles in Ireland as seen through the eyes of a child.

In Poppy O’Neill’s ‘Skyward!’ the protagonists crash after a hot air balloon ride, and ‘die noisily in some damp-fallowed field at the edge of the forest’. The rollicking pace of the prose reflects the tone of a story which ends in death but whose main sentiment is still somehow that of overwhelming joy.

All told, the stories in the collection are a pleasure to read, and serve as a heartfelt examination of life in a chaotic world. There is quite a bit of pain and sadness, but also a deep undercurrent of love and a pervasive exploration of the ties that bind people together. The combination makes for a collection of short stories that is well worth reading.




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