A review of You Are Going Away edited by Matthew Ward

Most of the stories, and particularly the three winners, have all of those qualities: are tightly structured with a conflict that pulls the reader in and drives the narrative forward, leading carefully and conclusively towards the ending. Interestingly, a large proportion of the stories included here are first person narratives, rooted in the present and reflective of the past.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

you are going away
Best of Skive Short Story Prize 2005
Matthew Ward, Ed
Mockfrog Design Press
2005, till 31 Jan priced at:
$11.00 AUD (Australian Dollars)
$8.18 USD (US Dollars)
available as printed book
Ebook(.pdf) $1.33 (AUD) = $0.99 USD

I’m predicting that the short story is on the verge of making a gigantic comeback. The form is perfect for the modern short attention span; perfect for a brief moment of respite in between the chaos that makes up most people’s lives; perfect, because of its brevity, for ebooks and podcasting; and when written well, a perfectly short piece of well structured, intense, and powerful literature. Compilations of short stories are, generally speaking, a delight for the reader, as it allows for a quick bite of literary pleasure at any time, with a diverse range of voices, styles, settings, and narrative structures that ensure freshness. Venues like Skive Magazine, launched in late 2003, have done much to bring the art of short story writing into a public arena. The site features original, and often edgy short stories illustrated and presented with panache by editor Matt Ward. Skive’s second publication, You Are Going Away contains the top eighteen submissions to the Skive Short Story Prize run in mid 2005. I suspect that there are many writers who don’t really understand what it takes to make a good short story–a tight, clean structure, conflict, hook, desire, and a ringing ending–and others who equate the short story form to a short version of a novel, or worse, a slice out of a novel–something secondary to or preliminary for the real game of full length fiction. Thankfully, there isn’t too much of that in this new collection, which features stories from around the world, with a myriad of different voices, settings, and time frames–some very short and even cursory, and others longer and more detailed. Most of the stories, and particularly the three winners, have all of those qualities: are tightly structured with a conflict that pulls the reader in and drives the narrative forward, leading carefully and conclusively towards the ending. Interestingly, a large proportion of the stories included here are first person narratives, rooted in the present and reflective of the past. Where the stories work best, the narrative is driven from well developed characterisation and a strong sense of place, with evocative detail drawing the reader deep into the world of the story. It’s impossible to read a collection like this without assessing the prize winners first, partly because of their placement in the book.

First prize winner, Ann Fischer’s ‘Rain, a Quiet Street and Amber’ provides the title for the collection with its opening line. It’s a beautifully paced, almost tender look at love lost from a first person point of view. The events in the novel have already passed, and neither the protagonist narrator nor the antagonist are present in a direct sense. However, the narration resists nostalgia, as the author creates motion, conflict, and a strong sense of present tense desire with a reflective assessment of an affair long over. The structure is both unusual and tightly mapped, and the writing remains clean, toeing the line between the past and present and keeping the reader involved with its rich characterisation and subtle build up of dramatic tension without consummation:

When your first book comes out I read through the stories like someone munching through a box of chocolates, gorging myself on the love that we had that now lives on the page. I am everywhere, but not with you. (9)

The story is so richly detailed, and the characterisation of the protagonist so well written, that I found myself imagining that the unnamed ‘star’ was Malcolm Lowry or Michael Ondaatje–some eminent Canadian male author of note, although of course this is fiction, and there need be no ’real life’ behind it The transport of the reader however, was complete, as was the ebb and flow of the dramatic tension.

Second prize winner Caroline Fletcher’s ‘A Taste of Money’ was full of humour, and provocative in its connection between sexual desire and the succulent taste of fresh cherries. However, this story seemed a little pat in its ending–the tiny pun not enough to sustain the weight of the full story. The narrator is made to appear unstable, and a little unpleasant, which works well, but again, doesn‘t fulfil its promise as it ends too soon, without a real denouement or any sense of where the narrator was taking us. The pun just isn’t enough of a conclusion to give this story the sense of completion it requires.

Third prize winner, Melissa Beit’s ‘The Bridge’ lives up to its prize and presents a complex first person memory of a near fatal train bridge crossing. The story is full of detail, and despite its small word count, manages to convey a heady sense of life in rural Queensland for the children of Italian migrants–picking up the multicultural flavour of Australia, an authentic child’s perspective, though shot through with a light touch of nostalgia, amidst conflict and resolution:

As well as the juddering and rattling of the train and its empty cane bins, the howl of its passing wind, and the earthquake tremble of the bridge, the platform was doing its thing, bouncing up and down under our weight as though inviting us to triple pike. My brother, who is not musical, in spite of the piano lessons, broke confidently and roundly into song: Train is comin’, oh yeah, train is comin’ oh yeah…(15)

Other stories in this collection traverse a wide terrain, moving through a child’s discovered guilt in country Australia, a strange bus ride through a deserted Sydney, a sultry beach where a would be detective follows the trail of a failed romantic interlude with roses and footprints, a woman’s unexpected dream of Fred Astaire on the last day of her life, an obese young woman about to take on a serious exercise program after one last chocolate fling, a young man on the verge of leaving his Floridian family home for a new life in Chicago, or a man dying in the Australian outback. The stories make ample use of dialect, individual voices, and tend to have engrossing, easy to read plots, with little overt experimentalism, and a healthy sense of fun. In other words, this is a collection full of entertainment, immersion into a new world, and sometimes a little gem of wisdom to take away. A few of the stories begin with a great idea or concept, which is left unfinished, so that the reader feels cheated. Or at times the reader is taken on a great journey, which then has an ending too contrived–a deus ex machina. There are a couple of stories that are beautifully written, such as Joseph Shorter’s ‘Cass,‘ but which just don’t have a strong enough structure or plot to make a dramatic impact on the reader, who is left wondering what has happened. In these instances, a little more development and a tighter sense of what the story is trying to convey would have helped. Another recurring fault is that characterisation is often sacrificed in favour of plot–something which is fairly easy to do with the short story, since there is little time for character development. Writing good characterisation in such a short space takes the skill of a poet, and where it does occur well, such as in Joanne Riccioni’s ‘The Art Collector’, few words are needed to convey meaning. Here sexual tension appears in the most mundane of activities, revealing the protagonist‘s desire:

As he turned off the tap and dried his hands, he heard the jingle of her bracelets, a soft, preparatory cough, the unzipping of her portfolio.(44)

Despite some minor faults, and a few stories which could be made better with a couple of reworks, this is a very pleasurable collection. In general, the writing is strong, the stories engaging, and easy to digest in a single sitting. I reviewed the ebook version, and although I usually find ebook fiction difficult, it is ideal for the short story form. In the midst of working on a mundane project, one can turn to a story, and read it in the space of 10-15 minutes for brief respite. The book is also available in hard copy, and both the ebook and hard copy are so reasonably priced (the ebook is almost free until the end of January), that one can buy them purely to lighten the load of life–to experience a few moments of reflection, or change of scene. For more information visit: www.skivemagazine.com/skivessprize/skivessprize.html