The Journey Prize 24

October 1, 2012 § 2 Comments

This book was provided by the publisher in return for an honest review.

The Journey Prize anthology often has an identifiable theme. This is probably not surprising, since there are trends in short fiction just as there are trends in everything else, and we can expect jurors to be aware–consciously or not–of the latest fashionable themes. To begin with, the stories no doubt seem fresh in their subject matter; if the jurors later notice a trend, they don’t mention it. Anyway, the winner has often been the one I consider the best-written story out of the group of stories with similar subject matter.

This year, the theme is not so much subject as it is narrator. Of the thirteen stories in the anthology, seven of them are narrated by children or teenagers and three by people in their late teens or early twenties. Can this simply be down to writers thinking they must write what they know? Where are the stories about the very elderly or the baby boomers? The mid-life crisis has taken a back seat to preoccupations with childhood and growing up. If authors take “write what you know” to mean only situations and settings that they have expperience of, rather than just human beings and their motivations and interactions, fiction suffers.

Taking children and adolescents as narrators often tempts writers to use a conversational, chatty style, but this can only work if it’s an illusion rather than a reality. Saying that someone was being “weirder than usual,” for example, is obviously realistic in the sense of being how a teenager might talk about someone, but a teenager narrating a short story needs to find a cleverer way of telling us that information while still preserving the intimacy and naturalness of the voice.

Another current problem in short story writing in particular is writers using what characters do as a shortcut to save them showing us who they are. Like using brand names to precisely anchor fiction in a time and place, this has to be done sparingly, or it is just lazy. Characters have plenty of quirks, opinions or tics so we can all see at first sight who they are. But this only tells the reader who they are in a superficial sense, as if the only information we have about someone has been extracted from the dozen or so interests they’ve listed on Facebook. Taste and viewpoint do not a whole person make.

Those moans aside, four stories stood out. Shashi Bhat’s opener, “Why I Read Beowulf,” is a nicely contained story about a teenager’s fascination with her English teacher. At the same time, it charts her relationships with her best friend and with a man grooming her on the internet. The voice is handled well, crafted to appear like a teenager speaking but with plenty of literary descriptions and punchy observations.

“Barcelona” by Jasmina Odor was the next story that caught my eye. Amanda is depressed and living with her boyfriend and her family in one house, while yearning to return to Barcelona, a place where she felt alive. Odor catches the family dynamics and the stresses of shared living space, and as she moves between narrative viewpoints she pins down the fluidity of people and their emotions. The characters are nuanced and not forced into moral positions; sometimes they are judgemental, and sometimes they are big enough to recognise and overcome their prejudices. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the structure of the story, or more particularly by the balance between the Barcelona and the Canada sections–the story might work better as the beginning of a novel– but it was easy to overlook this problem in a story with such a quietly confident voice.

Eliza Robertson is a talented young writer whose first Journey Prize story was “Ship’s Log” in the 2010 anthology. This year’s entry, “Where Have You Fallen, Have You Fallen?”, is an intriguing short story. It’s oddly hard to say much about this story without spoiling it for the reader, so I won’t give away any of the details. It’s laconic yet lively, and cleverly put together: one to savour.

Finally, the story I would want to win if I was a juror: Alex Pugsley’s “Crisis on Earth-X.” I came close to not getting very far into this one. The title made me think of comics or sci-fi, which put me off, and then on the second page, the sentences “But the day I’m remembering was not winter. The day I’m remembering was one day away from true summer, a Wednesday in late June, one of the longest in the year.” This, coming after a description of the narrator’s uncle coming to live with them–a narrator you might assume, from the opening paragraphs, to be afflicted with a typical (ie not very convincing) cutesy and literature-friendly autism, made me roll my weary eyes. Enough, I thought. Why must there always be the same feel of structure and mood to these memories-of-childhood stories? I wrote illegible notes all over the first few pages complaining about this or that, but gradually, as the story continued, I came to admire it. The characters, given a bit of light and water, blossomed and thrived. One of the great things about the story is how Pugsley conveys the young boy’s physicality and energy (“This meant leaping the bottom three stairs and immediately somersaulting–purely as a means to dissipate the tremendous shock of impact”) without overthinking and overwriting. The story is more successful than many in the same genre because it is bigger in scale and awareness. We don’t need to be told the brands of processed food of the period, for example, because the author can actually incorporate it into the description and the plot. The family is reminiscent of that famous literary rag-taggle bunch, the Glasses, and the writing style doesn’t detract from that impression.

Final mention goes to Trevor Corkum’s “You Were Loved.” The story itself, a tale of a bar hookup interspersed with memories of the narrator’s past, didn’t quite come together cohesively enough for me–the present section being much more vivid and contained, like a shaken bottle of beer, compared to the past’s more scattershot, wistful approach. But Corkum’s sharp and sassy writing–in particular, his descriptions of people and places–is both funny and evocative.

Are you a Journey Prize reader? Which story was your favourite from this year’s anthology?

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