The fifty stories that made this longlist for the Reflex prize demonstrated that the flash-fiction genre is alive, kicking, and as vibrant as ever. Flash-fiction is a challenge, not only because of its length, but also because the stories must be well written and satisfying in themselves. This is the art of knowing exactly what to leave out of a story without detracting from the subtlety of the prose.
In order for flash to be successful (in my mind at least) it is important that it meets the criteria of any good piece of short fiction, the feeling of time passing for a character, the change wrought in that character, the ability of the reader to extrapolate into the story’s wider world and see the hidden things that are only obliquely referenced, and the knowledge of what will happen after the story finishes. A full stop is rarely final, and the short form wields its power not from the sense of conclusion, but from the knowledge of possibility, the tantalising glimpse of what might happen next.
Which brings us to the winners.
Jimmy Choo Shoes by Shannon Savvas
The winner, Jimmy Choo Shoes, was a surprise. To be honest, the subject matter is not usually one that I enjoy in my appreciation of flash, however the lines in which the abduction of a child would have been described are, instead, missing; an elegant choice, made more powerful by being unsaid. Then there’s Cas. The character moves (or rather stumbles) through the story like a millennial hedonist, self-obsessed and careless, entitled and selfish. This is a lesson in consequences, of a history that allowed Cas to think it is acceptable to get blind drunk the night before, a blindness to the inevitable hangover that leaves her without paracetamol. And this is where the drama comes from—Cas’ annoyance at a seven-year-old’s whining.
But, surprisingly, this is not where it ends.
So many flash-fictions take the frame of a tragedy and create a prose poem, an eloquent shrine based on the stab of that event. Very often there is no drama, no consequence, and frankly, no story to be had.
Not this time.
Once the unsaid has happened, once the tragedy is passed (imagine the time it took, first the police, then the investigation, headlines in the papers, grief, anger, recrimination, a family divided, and finally a funeral) there is only one response from the now numbed Cas.
And, like all good flash-fiction, even though the story ends, once she puts her Jimmy Choos on her feet we know what happens next.
Stolen Hours by Sophie van Llewyn
In second place, Stolen Hours, takes subtlety to new heights. The tension from the simplicity of the interaction of Mara and the ‘secret service man’ is palpable, and (even though it is unsaid) there is a real sense of despair, resignation, and yet a quiet determination in Mara’s imprecise responses. The silent ‘yes’ she gestures sets the scene for the final paragraphs, the plan to escape disguised with the excesses of food, and the unsuspecting greed of her husband. Of course, her plan is already in motion, she has answered ‘yes’ to the secret service man’s question ‘Did he speak against the party’, so this Wednesday meal, the endless courses, the spices and deception, will undoubtedly be his last. Soon, there will be a knock at the door.
Pandora’s Cat by Tracy Fells
In third place, Pandora’s Cat, impressed with its use of a familiar setup derailed by the discovery of a box in the woods. From this moment, the characters are picked apart, attitudes are laid bare and the bonds between them are tested and ultimately break. The Schrödinger allusion is very apt, and is woven further into the story than is apparent on first reading. The simplicity of the prose hides the deeper meanings well, a delicacy of touch I very much enjoyed.
About the Judge
Tim Stevenson is an award-winning flash-fiction writer, including the National Flash-Fiction 100-Word Prize for which he now acts as a permanent judge, and has also judged the Bridport Flash-Fiction Prize in 2016.
Three volumes of his work have been published: The Book of Small Changes (65 flash-fictions, 2014), On Cleanliness and Other Things (13 short stories, 2015), and Songs Without Music (52 flash-fictions, 2016).
He is currently working on a further flash collection, and a novel, and can be found either lecturing on the origin of ideas for stories, or staring absent-mindedly out of the window.