Judge’s Report: Marjorie Barnard Award 2021

There were 125 entries in this year’s Marjorie Barnard Award and I enjoyed reading them all. I expected many would have the pandemic either as the focus of the story or at least in the background, but there were only three, and only one in which COVID 19 was central to the action of the story. 

Many of the stories I read, I suspect, are true, but this is not important to me. I read for a different sort of “truth” which can be found in fiction as well as non-fiction. 

It is difficult to write a short story that covers a lifetime, and many of the stories I rejected tried to do this. I generally recommend covering a short period of time – a couple of hours or a couple of days in a story’s timeline. Stories that try to cover longer periods of time often lack structure, or may be too episodic and lack narrative flow. 

After whittling the 125 stories down to a longish short list of fifteen, I became very fussy. In my own writing I often ask myself What do my characters WANT? The reader needs to know this from the first paragraph. So, a story with a rambling, over-descriptive opening (no matter how well-written) inevitably went into the reject pile. I need to engage with the characters, and even in a fantasy they need to be people I can relate to. 

Being super-fussy I managed to bring fifteen short-listed stories down three. These were: 

  • ‘If Kai jumped off a cliff’ by Michael Morell, Footscray VIC 
  • ‘Carpeted’ by Alison Ferguson, Eleebana NSW and 
  • ‘Good People’ by Jodie Kewley, Red Hill South VIC. 

I wished I had three prizes to award because these three are excellent, though they are very different. ‘If Kai jumped off a cliff’ is a fantasy, set in a village built on a cliff; ‘Carpeted’ is about academic fraud, and very relevant with a nice twist at the end. 

After much thought and re-reading I chose ‘Good People’, which starts with the protagonist, Matthew, being picked up by his mother after his release from prison. Despite being written in the third person we are very much in Matthew’s head throughout the story. His mother takes him to a cabin park because her partner doesn’t want him in their house. Matthew is cold and lonely. What he wants is acceptance and companionship, and this will be difficult. 

I was impressed by how expertly the author has woven the back story into the present story, how the author has SHOWN rather than TOLD what Matthew wants. So, while the action of the story occupies a couple of days, we get a sense of a lifetime. The final scene I found particularly moving, because it gives the reader hope that he will open himself up to ‘Good People’ and find what he’s looking for – companionship and acceptance. 

Pippa Kay

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