The Long and the Short of It anthology review

by Sarah Laing / 20 August, 2011
A story anthology with a difference.
The Long and the Short of It is an enchanting publication – slim, creamy-paged, square-shaped, illustrated by Anastasia Doniants, who has a surrealist touch with the coloured pencils. Containing two winners and four highly commendeds, it’s the result of a Unity Books and Sport competition for the best stories over 10,000 or under 1000 words, as judged by Elizabeth Knox, Bill Manhire and Emily Perkins.

I loved Kirsten McDougall’s Clean Hands Save Lives, the winning story under 1000 words. She captures the absurdist state of motherhood – the battle between biscuits and principles. From the foul-mouthed four-year-old taking “thirty-six hours and a knife to come out” to the “maniac with a hygiene fetish”, the details are droll and true, and the story ends where a preschooler's logic might lead you.

I also loved Anna Jackson’s When We Were Bread. It describes the self-absorption of pregnancy, the cacophony of life. It is tightly structured, a chapter and a hormone-addled dream for each month. The imagery is glorious (Spanish brothels, heroin after an All Blacks loss, a crib made of copper wire and cardboard), and I was sad to leave the cast of characters, hoping they might sprawl into a future novel.

The winning story over 10,000 words, Lawrence Patchett’s The Road to Tokomairiro, is elegant, with a deep sympathy towards the people involved. After a freak accident that kills an older honeymooning couple, a coach-and-horses driver refuses the solace offered by a reverend, but turns to storytelling to ease his distress. Patchett synchronises the horses’ gait with the length of the yarn, the destination being reached at the same time as his conclusion.

In, Craig Cliff employs the wit and intelligence that won him the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book. He snapshots the restlessness of farmers on holiday in Fiji, desperate to demonstrate their No 8 wiriness to thwart Cyclone Stuart. Their long-suffering wives read Jodi Picoult and join them for sunset dinner cruises, “platters of cold prawns but no sliced bread”. It’s a wry vignette of how people get things so wrong.

Sylvie Thomson and Rachel O’Neill’s stories complete the set, but although both have the “touches of brilliance” the judges talk about in their introduction – great characters and striking language – they aren’t fully resolved.

A curious thing: five of the writers are graduates from Victoria University’s International Institute of Modern Letters. Is this now a prerequisite for winning competitions? I hope there are other writers out there, that it is possible to write outside the workshop environment. I tried to discern a house style but couldn’t – each writer has a distinct voice. Perhaps, then, the IIML is a Swiss finishing school – what these writers share is poise.

THE LONG AND THE SHORT OF IT (Unity Books/Sport, $20).

Sarah Laing is an Auckland writer, cartoonist and designer.

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