If, like Sylvia Plath, you have feared “the death of the imagination”, rest easy: it is thriving and flashing itself in the latest collection of shorts released by Margaret River Press.
One of my annual highlights is to receive the Margaret River Short Story Competition anthology. I have had the pleasure of reviewing the collections since the inaugural 2011 competition and this year I am, once again, not disappointed.
In the imagination stakes, the winning story Lost Boy is a tour de force. Who conjures this boy who speaks in a language of stick figure sketches? What acute observational eye brings to life the kind hearted cop who …
… felt an almost talismanic attachment to the boy, not only because he’d picked him up, like a lucky coin, but also because he’d been the first to extract conversation, of a sort, from him. (15)
or the foster parents …
… Lorraine – dumpling of a woman, with a shrewd, weathered gaze – and Doug – big, silent and marked as an old tree. (16)
Who is this writer brave enough – assured enough – to leave the reader with …
… the empty sound of a case file slid into a drawer among a hundred other finished or unfinished stories. (25)
so that we may savour our own creative juices? Who is this story-teller confident to resist the temptation to settle every piece of the puzzle into place?
It’s Melanie Napthine. The Melbourne-based writer’s ‘Tear along the dotted line’ was featured in the 2014 anthology The trouble with Flying where it glittered amongst the many gems for its clever simile and metaphor. Her winning entry this year (Lost Boy) is, I am delighted to say, completely different in style but no less impressive and, in my humble opinion, a worthy winner. The angles and slants of my literary leanings are mine alone so it is thrilling when a judge’s favourite resonates with me as a fellow writer, reader and reviewer.
There is great diversity in this year’s collection (titled, as always, by the winning story); from Susan McCreery’s frightening scenario of intrusion which becomes something altogether different (‘The Uninvited’) and the ultra-short, surreal ‘The Ginkgo Tree’ (Paige Townsend) to the gritty reality and subversive menace of Eva Lomski’s ‘The Trapper’ (which was awarded second place).
The gripping horror of Lomski’s story is cleverly emphasised by the structure and cadence of its sentences.
Clamped around her right boot, a steel-jawed trap. No pain yet. Numb. Think systematic. (28)
Metal snap of a trap. Cried out. He was there, standing over her, springy as a jockey, lifting a shovel to waist-height. Black. (30)
The Southwest prize was awarded to Carol McDowall for ‘Bringing Home the Ashes’, celebrating the love between grandfather and granddaughter with humour.
Two highly commended stories are ‘Ash Miss’ and ‘Mojitos in Tehran’.
Claire Aman’s cleverly titled ‘Ash Miss’ is a tale of a disenfranchised boy (“Something is careful in him.” (113)), a grey budgerigar and a damaged and understanding woman (“Neila, droopy cardigan and slippers, one hand missing” (116)).
In ‘Mojitos in Tehran’, Magdalena McGuire tackles a difficult subject, far removed from everyday life for most of us, with great delicacy and depth of understanding. It is a multi-layered story that tackles some rather large themes with understated – yet intense – brevity. A remarkable feat in just eleven pages. An old woman and a baby:
They seem to recognise something in one another, making me think that the end of life and the beginning are closely linked. This is true in more ways than one. A pregnancy is an end of sorts though everyone calls it a beginning. (229)
The narrator finds the blazing supermarket lights “optimistic. They are not afraid to go all the way” (233) and the battles she struggles with as she teeters on the precipice of a new life are both ordinary and extraordinary.
There it is: the old life. Too close to ignore, too appealing not to touch, and yet clearly slipping away. (238)
The juxtaposition of the subdued art of crossword completion with the exhilaration and exuberance of hang gliding works as a clever contrast in ‘Glory Season’ (Cassie Hamer). Wind (“a Westerly, soft as a baby’s breath” (73)/”obliterated by a tsunami of aerial turbulence” (79)) is woven throughout this rather uplifting story about grief.
Beverley Lello shows originality and cleverness with her fragmented set-piece ‘Scenes from a Disappearance’, opening with A possible prologue and ending with the cryptic A possible ending but for only one part of the story. (Lello penned the delightful ‘Things that are found in trees’ which won the first Margaret River Short Story Competition).
Erin Courtney Kelly’s ‘Hot and Cold’ is a luminous lingering allegory, featuring rhubarb, no less! I.N. Murray, with a deft hand, carves out a coming-of-age scenario in ‘Skeleton Creek’ and Michelle Wright’s labels in ‘To call things by their right name’ are clever. There’s always a story that can sidle up beside me and give me a punch I didn’t see coming. Jane Downing delivers the blow in ‘An Undelivered Letter to the Future.’ Knocked the stuffing out of me.
Louise Hodge had me laughing out loud with:
Mum has got a new friend called Dawn who is a bit of a feminist and I am sure she is giving Mum some bad tips. Mum used to dye her hair with tropical Copper Glow, but Dawn said Mum should be true to herself, which happens to be a pretty unattractive shade of grey. (‘Lagoon Dreamer’, p. 197)
Twenty-four stories…too many to comment on every one, but every one with merit. Laurie Steed and Richard Rossiter had the job of forming a longlist from the 323 entries, with Estelle Tang making the final judgement and editing the collection. With a forward by Director Caroline Wood and a succinct introduction by Estelle Tang who resisted (thank you!) that age-old temptation to tell us all about the stories before we read them, it’s a varied collection, an imagined universe of beguilement, grief and humour. Much like the universe we know. If, like me, you love the short form, then you will not be disappointed. Lost Boy & other stories is available from Margaret River Press.