Judges’ Report, BSSA 2019

Comments from our 2019 BSSA judge, Samuel Hodder from Blake Friedmann literary Agency.

Judging this year’s shortlist has been a joy – the hardest part was to accept that I couldn’t give a ‘Highly Commended’ to more entries. Within the constraints of just a few pages, these stories succeeded in drawing the reader into their worlds and making them care for characters they only had just encountered. So many of the stories were deeply moving or poignant. What struck me most of all was the inventiveness of the stories, whether in their structure, their voices, or in the wonderful range of vivid imagery. A girl suspended in mid-air, survivors healing through song in a candlelit chapel, two streetlamps leaning into each other, in love in the twilight. These were images that remained with me long after reading.

A wonderfully vivid and arresting story of community, trauma and healing that seizes the reader’s attention from its opening lines and doesn’t let go. Lucy Mae’s voice is brilliantly achieved – lyrical but direct, wry but warm, full of life as well as loss – and the story builds a powerful sense of both character and place. The writing is gorgeous, rich with allusion, full of striking imagery and metaphor, with beautiful turns of phrase on every page. It reminded me of the very best of dystopian fiction but is all the more affecting since it is about our own time.

MURMURATION (Second Prize)
A tense and brooding study of alienation and anxiety, portraying a man trying and failing to navigate an unexpected crisis in his marriage. It’s deeply atmospheric – a triumph as a mood piece – but also brimming with tension, and the shock of the revelation is expertly handled. The ways in which this story shows us the character’s coping strategies, in a situation he is ill-equipped to manage, is deeply moving, and the description of landscape and weather artfully builds our understanding of his inner world.

One of the most formally inventive stories on the shortlist and also one of the most rewarding – as the pieces fall into place the story builds and builds to deliver a powerful emotional punch. The story is successful at convincingly representing mental illness, capturing its language and disorientation, while sustaining the reader’s empathy for the character, which is no easy task. An original, thought-provoking and deeply humane story.

THE STEPWELL (Highly commended)
A kaleidoscopic story centred upon a brief intimacy between two boys, during a period of great upheaval in India. With remarkable economy it successfully interweaves the personal with the political, interlacing the narrator’s feelings for his new friend with a portrayal of his family, his community, and his country at a historic time. It’s alternately dreamlike and matter-of-fact, sensual and confronting, poignant but not sentimental. A deeply evocative story of desire across social fractures. 

SADNESS (Highly commended)
One of the greatest achievements of any fiction is to inspire and extend readers’ empathy and reading SADNESS might do more to make the reader consider their own meat-eating than a hundred newspaper articles. Not only the narrator but also the ‘character’ of the doomed cow are brought powerfully, briefly, to life. An affecting, controlled, elegantly written story that, despite being just a few pages long, lingered in my mind for days afterwards.

Comments on the Local Prize and Acorn Prize winner from BSSA team.

Local Prize Winner

What happens when you don’t conform to the norms of the society in which you live? Discrimination and violence in Uganda combined with the brutal questioning of a home office official make a powerful story about Gamisha/Aaron, a young trans person, trying to find a life path. We were drawn to this story because of the compelling theme and, at times, strong lyrical writing.

Acorn Award for an Unpublished Writer of Fiction

Life is tough in the ‘jungle’ at Calais. ‘So many men,’ says the young female volunteer as she mulls over how to record her impressions on Facebook. This story explores the refugee crisis from a fresh angle and what impressed us most was the lack of sentimentality and unstinting honesty of the writing.