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This week the BBC announced the shortlist for its annual National Short Story Award, and tonight the fifth and final entry on the list was read out on Radio 4. You can read about the entries online here. More excitingly, you can listen to them here. And even better, you can download them and put them on your iPod or mp3 player to listen to on those rainy winter commutes to work.
The judges have done a good job of creating a shortlist diverse both in terms of subject matter and style. I spent Friday evening listening to them one by one, and each bears its own distinct mark. “Other People’s Gods” by Naomi Alderman takes a humorous look at personal religious belief, and the conflicts it can provoke with its more organised cousin. “Hitting Trees with Sticks” by Jane Rogers also has its soft, light moments, provided in this instance by an endearing narrator whose memory is decaying severely, although the humour is laced with the sadness that comes from her acknowledgment that she is growing old and unsure of her place in the world. “The Not-Dead and the Saved” by Kate Clanchy is a smoothly-paced, heart-rendingly sad study of terminal illness; if you do put that one on your iPod for your journey to work, you might not want to listen to it on a Monday morning. Nevertheless, set yourself in good stead for it and it will move you right to the bone marrow. Lionel Shriver’s “Exchange Rates” explores the relationship between a father and his adult son, and contains this fantastic line: “There are only two bargains in the UK: marmalade and breakfast cereal.”
My favourite, though, the one that really jumped out, was “Moss Witch” by Sara Maitland. I’m always drawn to stories that make me imagine strange and beautiful things. Call that magic or fantasy or what you will (in my opinion the means is the same as that employed in any other kind of fiction), one of the reasons I like to read is to picture things hitherto unseen. Maitland’s story ticked all those boxes, but her prose is equally enchanting. On top of all that, her narrative takes a few neat twists that you might not expect. Favourite bit? The moss witch’s hands.
The winner will be announced on Monday, so you’ll have the weekend to place your bets.