Waving at the Gardener: The Asham Short Story Collection, ed Kate Pullinger

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The Independent Culture

It was not long ago that the short story was little sister to the novel, but lately there has been a transformation. With major-league prizes such as the National Short Story competition, the short story is coming into its own again. Claire Keegan and Lorrie Moore have made their reputations on shorts alone; Alice Munro and Ali Smith have made it a highly regarded and popular form.

The Asham Award is solely for short stories written by unpublished women: the names above, though, would suggest that it's hardly necessary to raise the profile of the female short-story writer. One of the best short-story writers in the English language was a woman: Katherine Mansfield. Possibly there remains a prejudice that small equals feminine, which is why women are good at this art form (and men who are good at it are teased into writing novels instead).

This collection mixes writers from the Asham competition with A-listers such as Margaret Atwood, but the Asham entrants stand up well. The winner, Jo Lloyd, tells a beautifully compact, profound tale of mother's boy Wil, falling for Edie, who has come to help out at their B&B. Edie is a temporary fixture, but whether Wil can take a risk with his life is questionable.

Wil may be poised on the cusp, but many other stories are more traditional, about moments that go beyond that threshold: in Nora Morrison's "All for the Best", two girls ruin two lives, without meaning to; in Hilary Plews' "Lily's Garden", a little girl's relationship with her parents is destroyed; Alison Dunn depicts a teenage shooting in "Omi's Ghosts". Crucial moments that change lives for ever: in that respect, the Asham is not so unusual or innovative, seeming to welcome a traditional form of the short story. The variety in subject matter, though, is what makes this volume sparkle.