Okay, first things first: I didn’t pay for this anthology. I was lucky enough to win it, my name having been pulled out of a hat over on Jonathan Pinnock’s blog. The book was up for grabs as part of Jonathan’s interview with Stephen Moran – among other things, the organiser of the WillesdenHerald Short Story Competition and editor of this anthology. So I can’t really answer the question of whether it’s worth its asking price (RRP £10), but I’ll try to be as objective as possible.
Starting from the outside in, I’ll just mention the book’s cover. Sure, it’s not the most exciting image you’ll ever see, but there’s an element of it I thought was particularly apt. It shows an extreme close-up of a road or pavement, with the bright lights of town off in the blurry distance. The focus is on a few tiny stones, promoted to monoliths by the photographer’s zoom lens. This, in essence, is the basis of a successful short story – the writer must home in on some small aspect of a life, a relationship, whatever they are presenting to the reader, and make it a thing of consequence. These little black stones are part of the city, the way the look across the breakfast table is part of the marriage, or the fleeting lapse of concentration is part of the disaster.
I read the stories without knowing which had won the prize. It was an interesting game to try to predict which one the judge (Maggie Gee) had chosen, and I was pleased to find out later that one of my ‘top three’ had indeed bagged the prize.
It’s clear that the Willesden Herald takes itself, and its goal of delivering quality fiction, seriously. The writing throughout the book is consistently good, and the themes tackled are weighty, literary ones. Loss, old age, and regret all feature prominently. Death is never far away. It has to be said it can make the process of reading through this collection quite heavy-going at times. I’m not a reader who demands fluffy kittens and butterflies at every turn, but the cumulative effect of hearing about all these dying or dead loved ones did tend to mean I looked more favourably on the stories where the writer used a light touch, and managed to work in a (usually subdued, but credible) note of optimism towards the end. Perhaps the best example of this is the winning entry - Mary O’Shea’s story, “Out of Season”, in which a man with an undefined but terminal illness and his wife take a seaside holiday. Neither of them quite know how to cope, the illness has become a barrier between them, and both the weather and resort are pretty dismal. The story switches viewpoint between the two of them as they start to adjust to their new roles, and in facing up to the future they remember the past that brought them together in the first place. The close of the story is a long way from a Hollywood ending, but Mary leaves her protagonists with a note of hope – an optimistic lift, perfectly delivered.
I also enjoyed (although that’s possibly not quite the right word) Nemone Thomas’s “Dancing with the Flag Man”, an unflinching coming-of-age tale in which a teenage girl learns the dangers of judging people by their appearance. That makes it sound like a fable – which I suppose it is, in a roundabout way – but it comes across as a gritty and absorbing story of broken dreams and lost innocence. I’m in danger of cramming yet more clichés into this review, so I’ll just say it was one of those rare short stories where the characters are so vivid I found myself worrying what was going to happen to them.
The two stories that close the book are particular highlights, too. Angela Sherlock’s “Set Dance” – a story of two brothers vying for the attentions of a pretty girl – and Emma Martin’s “Victor” – in which an anti-abortion protester tries to help a teenager – are both great examples of writers taking their stories in unexpected and rewarding directions. It was also good to see Teresa Stenson’s “Blue Raincoat” again (I’m a member of the same online writing site as Teresa and had a sneak preview a while ago). The shortest story in the book, it’s a poignant study of grief, filled with beautiful poetic language and keen insights into human behaviour.
It’s not a perfect collection. I wasn’t keen on David Frankel’s “The Place” (although I liked the underlying premise), and I’m still undecided about the oddly supernatural “Overnight Miracles” by A. J. Ashworth. A couple of the other stories could easily have been improved by being made a little shorter, a little tighter.
On the whole, though, this is an impressive anthology of writing and a fantastic illustration of the storyteller’s art. The Willesden Herald competition has established itself as a bastion of contemporary literary fiction, and judging by “New Short Stories 5” there’s no reason to think that’ll be changing any time soon.