Kalashnikov for Shoes and three other stories – my reviews of the Writing West Midlands Short Story Competition 2013

So I was browsing the archives of the Writing West Midlands website this morning and I came across a few competition entries from earlier this year. there was a competition word limit of 1800 words and a theme of ‘travel’ so I thought I’d check out all of the available stories and post my thoughts of them here.

NB: If the links don’t work, here’s a link to the competition page

Kalashnikov for Shoes by Hilary McGrath

This was a frankly astonishing portrait in so few words. Kalashnikov for Shoes tussles with the ever difficult topic of refugees escaping an oppressive and war-torn homeland in search of a better future for themselves. McGrath manages to encapsulate her characters’ emotions perfectly, the hardships of crossing a border under the cover of darkness. Led by the suitably rugged Khalid – a family edges closer to an unnamed border. Shiro, his grandparents, aunt and cousins are at their last wisp of life. Where the most basic items are precious. The piece takes its title from Shiro’s loss of shoes, and a false promise made by a traveller they meet. He would trade shoes for a kalashnikov. The piece itself not only encapsulates the mood and strife of the family but it reflects in that of an entire country. Shiro is urged to join the fight against the government, but at eighteen his sights seem more set on rebuilding his broken country after war is said and done. The third person narrative only emphasises the distance of the Western reader. McGrath is a worthy winner in this competition.

The Life of Philip McAvoy by Ken Elkes

This short story was particularly unique one. Beginning with the trauma of witnessing a man jump in front of a train. Elkes’ unnamed protagonist and another shaking witness sit down and smoke – before giving Philip McAvoy a life of his own. Elkes’ writing stays very close to his narrator. The unnamed protagonist hides a lot of herself from the reader – which enhances the story through dulling the readers’ senses to a severe trauma in both the protagonist’s and Robert’s lives. It can’t be said that this story is powerful, moving and emotional in the same way that McGrath’s entry is, but it is moving in a different way. Elkes opts for a message of simplicity. The microcosm of an inner city couple witnessing a suicide in comparison to the macrocosm of a family which represents the plight of a country. But Elkes’ simplicity works well, the characters seem dead; but are dead in the way that their emotions have been squandered – dead through expert charactersation – not lack of characterisation. All in all I find it to be an interesting story and a silent reflection on the human psyche.

Twenty Miles South by Garrie Fletcher

A short journey encapsulated perfectly by its first line: “Danny was surprised that more people didn’t steal pensioners, it was easy; if a kid like him could do it anyone could.” There is a vague tongue-in-cheek humour to this piece which pairs with the subject perfectly. Danny has spirited a pensioner away from a nursing home and is attempting to take him on what appears to be an exciting, yet elicit day out. The characters bounce off each other well – particularly as most of their emotion is displayed through dialogue. We get glimpses of Danny’s past relationships; a past which has driven him to his reckless nature of the present snapshot we see in the piece. The work moves quickly; it’s not often an 1800 word story can legitimately include a police car chase either. It’s an impressive piece but perhaps lacks the emotive qualities of the previous two.

Light Sensitive by Ed Briggs

When I first read this piece I’ll admit to not really paying enough attention – but I felt it worthy of a second reading and found quite an intuitive piece lurking beneath the surface. I myself am particularly fond of the ‘reflecting on life whilst on a train’ motif – which Briggs uses to great effect. There is the inevitable clash of personal and public. A passenger must interact with their fellow passengers – verbally, mentally through observation alone. This piece captures that moment perfectly for me. Brigg’s protagonist – referred to in the third person as “He” allows the reader to position themselves in the train along with his passengers. This piece is another exercise in simplicity, but Briggs has built up more of a back story. His unwitting protagonist seems to reveal more of himself than he really wants to. ‘His’ life can be gleaned from his thoughts and actions and reactions. Making him one of the most interesting characters in any of the stories. This story was perhaps an honourable mention – perhaps a forth or joint third place. I personally feel it deserves at least second.