SHORT LIST (in no particular order):
Kōkako John Carstensen, Hamilton
Helicopter Heather Bauchop, Dunedin
The Girl with the Spoon in Her Eye Emer Lyons, Dunedin
Family Likenesses Leeanne O’Brien, Wellington
The Dead Man Susanna Gendall, NZ/France
Happiness Leanne Radojkovich, Auckland
Doling Out Dad Sarah Manning, Dunedin
Blue Linda Moser, Christchurch
TAKAHĒ SHORT STORY COMPETITION 2016: JUDGE’S REPORT
There was much to enjoy and admire in many of the submitted stories, and I felt privileged to be judging them. It was encouraging, too, to see such a wide and interesting range of topics and approaches. I was delighted by the strong sense of New Zealand as a natural and unforced setting, whether rural or urban. Noticeable, too, was the interest in examining the human condition in all its guises, though mostly from a fairly serious viewpoint; humorous pieces were the exception. Several stories were moving, touching and thoughtful. There was a pleasing dose of originality, too.
It is not, perhaps, ideal to include a cliché in a report on a writing competition, but as I read the entries that much overused phrase, ‘Less is more’, kept coming into my mind. So often the stories that claimed my attention were those in which the writers were unafraid of simplicity. Much of the best writing relied on restraint, on understanding that adjectives are not always a writer’s friend, that understatement is effective. The strongest stories also had confidence and authority – a sense of rightness, of command over the material.
Some writers were willing to go to darker, more challenging places, and it was this fearlessness that helped Helicopter to take first place. This disturbing, powerful and vivid story, which compellingly negotiates the knife edge of horror, grabbed me when I first read it and refused to let go. The author skilfully manages the balance between suggestion and narrative, and understands the power of detail in conveying atmosphere and emotion – the child’s homemade wool-haired dolls, the gothic darkness of the creek. It is a mature and memorable story, Hitchcock-like in its quiet menace.
Impressive writing ability and control mark the runner-up, Family Likenesses. This deceptively simply written yet confrontational story has considerable and lasting impact. Each word has been considered in building an apparently straightforward, idiomatic narrative that traces the desperate hope and fear of the female protagonist, and creates a strong sense of the violent act at the story’s heart by not describing it, and, cleverly, by contrasting it with her son’s later injuries. Once again, detail is employed with real intelligence: the blood likened to mercury, for example. The last sentence is superb.
The two highly commended stories, The Girl with the Spoon in Her Eye and Happiness, are both fine pieces of work. The former excels in its always credible depiction of a smart, wild, vocal child challenging family and social conventions, and is redolent with irresistible black Irish humour. It is original and spiky, and has a perfectly pitched ending. Happiness is especially noteworthy for its adept and natural use of detail – the farm, the loud, hard city, the food, the weather, the light – and for its unpretentious and believable depiction of emotion as April finds peace in the unlikely outsider, Jarrod, who is ‘jangly in the head’. Both the dialogue and the wry humour are quintessentially New Zealand.
First Place: Heather Bauchop – Helicopter
Second Place: Leeanne O’Brien – Family Likenesses
Highly Commended: Emer Lyons – The Girl with the Spoon in her eye
Highly Commended: Leanne Radojkovich – Happiness