Judge’s Report, BSSA 2021

Thanks very much to our 2021 BSSA judge, Norah Perkins from Curtis Brown for her overall comments on the stories she received and on the winners. The BSSA team were also delighted to offer and comment on the Local Prize by a shortlisted author on our list. It’s a big task, as Norah says to choose from such a great selection and we very much appreciate all she has to say about the Award and the entries she read. Read the bios of the winners and highly commended writers here and the bios of the shortlisted writers here.


It was a very great pleasure and an honour to judge the 2021 Bath Short Story Award. I work primarily with writers who are no longer alive but whose work lives on and is treasured by generations of readers. And so for me especially it is always exciting to have the opportunity to read new voices, and to imagine the ways that these writers will continue to interpret their world, and to bring their stories to us lucky readers in the years to come.

In a year when so many have suffered, when so many social and economic injustices have been brought – yet again – into harsh relief, I feel ever more keenly that stories have the capacity to help us listen to each other, to draw us closer together, to help us process the complex world we all share, and ultimately to bring us a sense of connection and hope. The stories in this year’s shortlist were, every one of them, extraordinary, and it was inevitably a difficult task to choose a winner. All the stories spoke eloquently – often in the voices of children and of those who have in some way been marginalised – of memory, of poverty, of mental health, of identity, and of the ways that love and anger intersect. And so many of them spoke of loss, in so many different forms, and the way that loss takes shape in our lives. And yet there was great beauty and humour and passion, too – the flip side of our human coin.

The winners of this year’s Award all demonstrate radical compassion, diverse perspectives, and truly extraordinary voices – I can’t wait to read what they write next.

First Prize:In Bed with My Sister

Heartbreaking, humane – and utterly brilliant. These are tough matters to write about with the kind of honesty and authenticity that this writer brings – I think their voice is something really special. It’s the story of sisters, one of whom is lost in her own mind, the little pieces of memory and self left floating, untethered; it’s a story of a hard-lived life, of the complexities of family and the ways we can damage and be damaged. And yet it is profoundly hopeful about the connection and compassion that can be found even in the most difficult times. Ultimately, it’s a story of powerful love.

Second Prize: Davey, Plastic Jesus and the Holy Spirit

This story is electric and brutal and funny and sad – a real tour de force, that gets the combination of dystopia, horror and the uncanny familiar just right, and leaves you at the edge of your seat. The ending is unexpected and ultimately very moving. Although it leaves you gut-punched, the child narrator’s voice absolutely crackles with energy and fierce humour – I would love to have spent more time with them…

Third Prize:Important Letters

I loved this story. The writer has that rare ability to – with the lightest touch – show me not just one woman’s whole life in a glimpse, but also how loss works – loss of memories, of abilities, of history, of place, of those we love… And formally, it was beautifully done, the dropping out of letters and of meaning and memory echoing each other. Just a very burnished, beautiful story, with immense but subtle power.

Highly Commended: Ma’s Favourite

This story feels utterly relevant today, the story of a young woman who experiences the kind of racism and violence that end up as the news items we glance over every day on twitter. It’s human and intimate and painful and beautifully observed.

Highly Commended: The Great Pretender

This is such a lovely story – of a real odd couple, who embody grace and humanity and humour and compassion despite the challenges they both face in their lives. And it cleverly turns – just at the end – into something so unexpectedly moving, and deftly rearranges all your assumptions…

Note: The BSSA team also awarded the Acorn Award for an unpublished writer to the writer of this story.

Local Prize (comments by BSSA team): The Pheasant 

We loved the liminal quality of this story: as day fades to evening a woman crosses the fields to the dark woods, in search of her lost dog. Above all, it is an poignant discovery of the fine balance between life and death, as seen from the women’s perspective and in a voice that is both unsentimental yet emotionally compelling.