I was very happy to receive my copy of Clutch, Brake, Sellarator - the compilation of the winning entries for last year's MPH Short Story Competition, for which I was one of the judges. Encountering the stories again reminded me of the morning all those months ago the six of us battled it out over the 20 stories that had been shortlisted for us. And I have to point out that anything I say in this post reflects my own views and not necessarily those of the judging panel as a whole.
There were, you will remember, two grand prize winners.
Tan Twan Eng's Some Things Will Remain set the bar for the competition very high indeed (as you would expect from a Booker-longlisted author) I loved the control of the piece - not a word is wasted and the story builds and builds to its heart-stopping climax while the peace and beauty of the setting, a lotus-covered lake, contrasts so starkly with the ugliness of the crime. I appreciated too how much is left unsaid, for the reader to bring their own interpretation of events to the story.
The title story by Ivan Yeo was enjoyed by all the judges for its humour, carefully observed characters (we particularly loved the "not girlfriend"), and strong Malaysian voice. However, I must confess that I found it a little over-written in places and I personally had a problem with the sudden change of mood at the end which seemed out of keeping with the rest. But it is a very strong debut piece and I do hope that Ivan keeps writing : control and craft can be learned, but the strong storyteller is there already.
Of the runners-up, the story I thought strongest was Lee Eeleen's The Englishman at Table 19. It is simultaneously a coming-of-age tale, a ghost story, and a comedy exploring the family holiday from hell: it works very well on all these levels.
Pilling Time is a surreal short story by Shih Li Kow which the judges enjoyed very much. It was very nicely written (and would we expect any less from Shih-Li?) but I have to say that I preferred her more "rooted-in-the real-world" pieces in Ripples.
The Hunter and the Tigress by Zed Adam Idris is a dark and magical story which captures the smell and feel of the Malaysian rainforest. It's disturbing (I found particularly chilling the scene where the tiger design on the plate begins to move and bites the hand of the man trying to steal it) and it doesn’t give easy answers. I was interested to see in the notes in the front of the book that this piece had grown from a short short story - because I've told Zed that it feels as if it needs to grow larger still and perhaps become a novella.
Vincent Foo's The Cobra's Mate is set in Sarawak. I liked that there was plenty of action and that the writer manages to maintain tension. I was fascinated by the insights into the dayak culture of the time.
The competition has, I think, been very important in opening up another avenue for local writers, and in encouraging short story writing, and this collection is well worth a read. I'm looking forward to next year so I can send in an entry myself!