From a longlist of 12 very good stories, I eventually drew up a shortlist of 4:
- 5: ‘Bad Bones’
- 13: ‘Kind’
- 38: ‘Thursdays at Samar’s’
- 39: ‘The Dark Road Home’.
After reading and re-reading these four stories I finally decided the winner should be No. 39: The Dark Road Home, though this wasn’t an easy decision. The other three on the shortlist are all excellent and quite different in subject matter and writing style.
‘Bad Bones’ has an impressive use of language and imagery. The narrator in ‘Kind’ is a young girl and I was impressed by the author’s insight and the girl’s voice. ‘Thursdays at Samar’s’ is a well-crafted story of revenge.
All four of these stories moved me, and I couldn’t say which moved me most. I was drawn into all of them from their opening sentences. They are well-constructed with a good build to a climax and a logical and satisfactory conclusion. The characters were interesting and credible.
I tried scoring each on criteria like structure, characterisation and originality to see if one scored better than the others, but total scores were similar. While, for example, ‘Bad Bones’ scored highest on originality and had the best opening sentence, ‘Kind’ scored highest on characterisation and narrator’s voice, and ‘Thursday at Samar’s’ scored highest on structure with a very satisfying resolution.
However, I kept coming back to ‘The Dark Road Home’ which I found difficult to fault. It is narrated by a woman driving her husband home from hospital after chemotherapy. It is a dangerous journey both literally and symbolically—a classic dark and stormy night. Their life together is shown in snatches of backstory and there is sequential logic to the way these episodes are woven into the narrative. I admire the narrator for her strength and honesty. The subject matter could invite melodrama, but the author avoids this. The story-telling is tight, the writing is spare and precise, and this seems appropriate to the toughness of the characters and the hardships they face.
There were only 54 entries this year. I felt the overall standard was high but I was disappointed that a few entries were more like anecdotes or snatches of memorabilia without much plot. For example, a series of episodes from childhood, or a travel diary, or random descriptions of characters who don’t interact. Perhaps I’m old-fashioned but I’m a firm believer in stories having a beginning, middle and end, with a climax somewhere near the end.
Another common problem occurs when an author tries to put too much into a short story, as if summarising what should really be a novel. Invariably this leads to more telling than showing in the narrative. The winning story covers a long period of time through backstory, which the author has skilfully woven into a relatively short journey.
I am always surprised at the range of subjects in the stories I’ve read. Recurring themes this year were child abuse and neglect, euthanasia and dementia. Despite their grim subject matter, I was often moved by these stories. There wasn’t much humour this year. Is this a sign of the times?
Thank you to the FAW for asking me to judge the Marjorie Barnard Award this year.
Read the prize-winning story here: