15 May 2018
The Dinesh Allirajah Prize for Short Fiction 2018 is a collection of short stories that each rotates around a central concept, that of the cafe. The writers included in the selection are not big names; in most cases they have been published only in literary journals, or were nominated in other literary contests. It is much to their credit - and that of the judges and editors of this volume - that the resulting collection is as good as it is.
So why have I given a rating of only 3 stars? Well, the short answer is that I believe that all literature should be judged equally. In my own reviews, I have given five stars to the likes of Tove Jansson, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Christopher Hitchens, and so forth; in the past I have given four stars to Bill Bryson, Milan Kundera, and Philip K. Dick. I believe that many of the smaller publications (and here I include self-published efforts) on Amazon are rated higher than they ought to be, and thus the challenge for readers is to find work that is honestly worth such high marks. There are many ways to explain the phenomenon - readers of self-published works and of collections like this do not like to seem stingy with their ratings; they do not see that prize collections occupy the same literary space as Charles Dickens et al; and perhaps they know the author and want to be kind and supportive. I know this last one is true - how else can I explain the high ratings of my own books on Amazon? I am no George Orwell, and yet my average ratings reach higher than some of the Orwell canon.
One would hope that any prospective reader would delve into the reviews for any new book, unless they were already convinced of the book's value for them. I can write as many negative reviews of Paulo Coelho's abysmal 'The Alchemist' - the fact is, for some his is the best book in the world, and spoke directly to their heart. There is no accounting for taste.
But there is accounting for quality. Within this slim volume - at 100 pages it is a short read - there are a few very good pieces, some pretty decent pieces, and a few that I have already almost entirely forgotten - and I won't be terribly sad when they slip loose of my memory entirely.
The collection opens with 'Black and Orange Caterpillars' by Rose McDonagh. Her story is compelling, follows a traditional-ish narrative arc (by which I mean it comes to a conclusion of sorts), contains characters that the reader cares about, and is both insightful and poignant. Her writing puts me in mind of Penelope Fitzgerald. I paid a quid for the book, and reading this first tale gave me the value for money I was after; I'll be looking for more by this talented writer.
Next was 'Bakhur', which I liked and disliked in almost equal measure. For one thing, it is too expository, and also not expository enough, if you can forgive the contradiction. We are told too much about the characters, and yet Lucas Stewart, the writer, seems to want his cake and to eat it, for much is not revealed directly, only between the lines. I did like the moral of the story, such as it is - that we sometimes fail to appreciate the value we add to a community - but about the setting I am likewise in two minds. The story takes place in Sudan, though it could as well have been set in Torquay for all the location really matters. It is good that we can read tales that transport us to another place, so that such places seem less alien to us in the future, but at the same time one can charge the writer with a certain amount of cultural appropriation as well.
Kim Squirrell's 'Four Times Forty Seconds in the Exploding Bakery Cafe' is a fun read, though insubstantial like a chocolate croissant; sometimes I lost track of what was happening to who, and who was thinking what. 'Cherry Girl' by Eva Bohme left me cold, especially with the ending - it felt like a superficial exploration of Japanese subculture, as though her material was chosen to shock; in the end it felt like an overworked cultural cliche. 'The Proper Way to Eat Sardines', by Victoria MacKenzie, was at times overwritten, a problem with much of today's output (and I imagine I have been as guilty as anyone else with this) but is saved by grace of being interesting. However, I had a hard time getting to grips with the character of the narrator's father - for such an adventurous traveller he seemed rather priggish and overly conservative by the end, almost as though MacKenzie had changed her mind about what she wanted him to be halfway through the story.
'Flat White' told me nothing that a hundred other stories haven't already told me about death; 'How Abu Baker Met His Third Wife' was strange, slightly confused, and in its descriptions of the eponymous protagonist there was a whiff of over-sexed racism - and for a moment I had him confused with Abu Bakr, the father-in-law of the prophet Muhammad. 'Showdown at Devil's End' barely seems to contain a cafe - the action revolves around a card game, and I've never known these to be played in Costa's.
But then there are two very good short stories that redeem much of what had preceded them. The first was the slightly sci-fi 'The Death of the Grapevine', written in brisk, controlled language by Marija Smits. There was something of Stanislaw Lem about the tale, which I won't spoil by giving details. And then, to close the book, 'The Lull' by Stephen Hargadon is a Julian Barnes-esque (can we say Barnesian?) story set in a greasy spoon. The dialogue is for the most part spot on, with only the occasional loss of control, and some of the best sentences in the whole book are to be found here ("Terry felt dizzy, as though his mind was floating away in tiny flakes, each one unique and impossible to reclaim.").
The question, then, is simple: should you bother with this book? The only answer I can give is that it depends. If you don't mind spending a trivial amount - a fraction of the cost of Edge Magazine, to take the first example that comes to mind - then yes, you should get this book. If you're expecting every story in the collection to be as good as the first and the last two, then no, save your change, and research the three authors concerned. They've got work elsewhere.
Or, to put it another way, of course you should buy this book. I've been reading a collection of essays by Ray Bradbury, and without the support of people like you, prospective reader, he would never have been published. We'd have had no 'Fahrenheit 451', 'Dandelion Wine', or 'Martian Chronicles.' So do buy this book, give these new writers a chance, and remember the names of those who earn your literary respect.