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Written by Hannah Sothcott, Marketing and Production Intern (Sept 2020)

According to The Guardian in May, time spent with books has doubled as a result of lockdown. ‘I just don’t have the time’ was replaced by the realisation that we did. And so, everyone began reading.

Unprecedented – the inescapable buzz word of 2020 – has demanded a need for community, understanding and comfort. With time almost suspended by lockdown, and millions wondering where exactly 2020 went, a bottomless pit was made for us all, internally and externally. 

The stories shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award this year have responded to this seemingly bottomless pit, albeit unconsciously. Taking us to the past, present and future, each story stands in solidarity with us as we contemplate what the world will look like, and what we will look like too. 

With this in mind, the timing of these stories couldn’t have been more perfect. Here at Comma, to add to the excitement, we have compiled some insights to let you know just what you can expect from the collection this year: 

‘Pray’ by Caleb Azumah Nelson

Described by head judge Jonathan Freedland as ‘[…] a story which fizzes off the page’, ‘Pray’ follows the lives of two brothers in South East London. To see an author of colour opening the collection is both exciting and refreshing. 

The story opens with palpable frustration as each season is desired after the other, noting our habitual, future-oriented outlook as we constantly ask ‘what is next?’, in order to escape the memory of what was. A seismic shift in the lives of the brothers suddenly forces them into the present. 

The narrative focuses on an integral passion shared by the brothers: rap music. The sensorial experience of identification and community persists throughout, despite the agony of misunderstanding, displacement, and the assumption of unfocused, loitering youth that surrounds the brothers and their friends. 

The open-endedness of the conclusion is Nelson’s way of re-aligning us with the essence of humanity, and the importance of ridding society of racial bias – in a sense, he is answering the prayer from the beginning. 

‘In the Car with the Rain Coming Down’ by Jan Carson

Jan Carson’s ‘In the Car with the Rain Coming Down’ encapsulates the humour that comes with wrangling a family outing whilst dealing with unspoken tensions that bubble beneath the surface. 

Set in rural Northern Ireland, the reader is met with a loveable and perceptive narrator in Vicky. Her colourful interiority sparks a mixture of belly laughter and poignancy as she observes the endearments and vices of her in-laws. What starts as an enthusiastic account quickly drifts into darker territory. 

A strong, honest deconstruction of womanhood and frayed family ties amidst the hustle and bustle of the seemingly trivial, this is a story not to be missed.

‘The Grotesques’ by Sarah Hall

In ‘The Grotesques’, Sarah Hall ponders upon the generational trauma passed from woman to woman – namely, the spectre of body image and desirability. Hall’s story follows Dilly, a woman in her thirties preparing to return home for her birthday tea party. 

Dilly’s perspective is of a woman who feels disoriented by society, with its callous nuances and contradictions. She reflects heartbreakingly upon the values instilled by her mother, for example, when ‘[…] what to wear to impress the lady from the magazine’ is of greater priority than a meal. 

Lacking a space of her own, whilst subject to the intense scrutiny of her family, Dilly is exhausted. The culmination of this exhaustion is unique, in that it is both expected and unexpected. 

‘Come Down Heavy’ by Jack Houston

With its exploration of drug culture and homelessness, Jack Houston’s ‘Come Down Heavy’ does not hold back on the peaks and troughs of recovery from addiction. The frantic pace of the form emphasises an intensity of experience that is hard to ignore.

As Simone and Jackie try to carve out a new life for themselves, friendship seems to triumph in the face of adversity. A unique understanding is established between the women in the face of hostility, leading us to express empathy in circumstances where we once might not have. 

Like the other stories, the ending is a surprise, leading the reader to consider where we should draw the lines in terms of helping not only others, but ourselves too. 

‘Scrimshaw’ by Eley Williams

The closing story in the collection, Eley Williams’ ‘Scrimshaw’ thrusts us into the modern middle-man of online connection, as the narrator waits for a response from someone they admire.

Yet, the contemplative nature of drafting a message leads to the question of what can and cannot help someone who is unhappy. Williams ponders the emotional labour of the invasive online world, as her protagonist ‘flexes’ her thumbs over the keyboard, feeling ‘[…] flushed with responsibility for taking charge of your state of mind.’ 

Deep, philosophical questions are underpinned by some of the more entertaining aspects of the online world, such as a livestream following the activity of walruses. The art of distraction is explored as well as the highs and lows of expectation.

If one thing is clear, it is that the short story no longer represents the maverick-like status of the unconventional, but a refreshing newness. Their resonance and impact, if only for a moment of this uncertain non-time, is just what is needed. With this in mind, each of them is a winner. 

***

The BBC National Short Story Award 2020 anthology is published by Comma Press and available now in paperback and eBook formats from all good retailers, including direct from our website.

Listen to readings of the shortlisted stories on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row here.

Read extracts from the shortlisted stories on the London Review Bookshop blog here.

The winner of The BBC National Short Story Award 2020 will be announced on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row live in October.

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