Competition Nine Judges Report by Michelle Christophorou

13th May 2022

 

First of all, thank you to Ian Rushton for inviting me to judge this competition. I really enjoyed reading and rereading over several days each of the fifteen anonymised stories on the longlist. Every flash had much to recommend it and I am sure that another judge, on another day, might well have made a different selection when compiling the shortlist of five.

And so to the stories.

The shortlisted ‘When they tried to make me neurotypical (and not be me)’ is written from the point of view of a young neurodiverse person, Alice. What particularly stood out for me was the way the author uses specific details to convey Alice’s sensory sensitivities and discomfort – ‘[t]he room is loud, the light thrums’; a voice is described as ‘serrated’ and ‘a saw sharpening’ – as well as her unique way of observing the world: the woman sits ‘3.2 metres from the left wall, 3.6 metres from the right’; her mother is not crying she is ‘making gulping noises’, her face ‘a soggy tomato’. I was moved by the fact that Alice in some ways does not understand her mother (she finds this crying amusing), yet she is comforted by the knowledge that her mother understands her.

The second shortlisted flash could not be more different in tone: fun, quirky and exuberant in its silliness. ‘Diary of a Unicorn Hunter’ moves so quickly with its short, staccato sentences that it is difficult to believe that, at 300 words, it is at the top of the permitted word count. I will leave it to the reader to discover if our hero finds their unicorn. I was also left wondering why exactly that hire fee was rendered non-refundable!

On the face of it, the Highly Commended ‘Kelly Bishop says her house is haunted’ (another piece narrated by a young girl) is a simple tale. Deceptively so, because on each reading, it reveals another layer. The subject matter is dark and disturbing but, somehow, I did not find it depressing. Maybe that is down to the skilful way the writer approaches this story sideways, to explore what this haunting is and the marks it leaves on both girls; maybe it is the delicate balance of showing and telling that leaves space for the reader (we are told not that these girls are pre-pubescent, but that they ‘steal [Kelly’s] mum’s bras and put socks down them, just to see what it will be like’), but never leaves us dangling; maybe it is the touching generosity (and vulnerability?) of Kelly herself who, despite everything that is wrong in her own life, wants her friend to keep her prize.

Also Highly Commended, ‘In the Dinosaur Museum, the Bones are Exposed’ is a surprising and ambitious flash. To me tonally perfect, the narrator’s is an original voice that demands to be listened to so that, from the start, I knew I was in safe hands. The rhythms and sounds of the language are exquisite in places: consider how the use of alliteration and onomatopoeia makes us feel this sentence: ‘They might need to stretch and curl, until their beige-bones creak-click back into place’. I also enjoyed the technical language that brought this museum visit to life (and demonstrated the narrator’s interest in her subject), as well as the play on colours throughout that comes together in the poignant (but, ultimately, hopeful?) ending.

And so to the winner.

How to describe ‘White Noise’? White noise is the noise produced by combining sounds of all different frequencies equally and together. On first read, much as white noise can help us sleep, I simply let the rhythms and repetitions of the prose wash over me (and this is beautiful, lucid, measured prose which was no doubt laboured over, but felt effortless). To that extent, my initial reading of this piece was a feeling: and it’s a feeling that lingers after several reads. I was also left with a sense of its shape.

Digging deeper, I noted how the piece begins and ends with a gun(shot), and with blood, heart, lungs (repeated slightly differently), how it expands and contracts like those lungs to convey the tiny enormity of the popping sound at its beginning, and what that signifies. Each sentence of the main body of the piece begins with the word its, mimicking the sound of white noise itself; each sentence is a feeling, an image, a sound, a smell, an action, a memory, as though each were a separate strand, a separate frequency. And the whole conjures the ringing in the ears left after a gunshot, perhaps; the narrator’s inability to forget or to live fully in a world that makes as much sense now as an untuned radio; and the impression, almost, of experiencing everything and nothing all at once, as might happen at the moment of a great shock, or of death.

 

Michelle Christophorou

@MAChristophorou