Ahead of today’s announcement of the winner of this year’s Bath Novel Award, we proudly present, in alphabetical order, the openings of 2023’s shortlisted manuscripts.
AFTER THE RAIN, EARTH HARDENS
Part 1: Sawako’s Story
The war made me an orphan, then a whore.
I suspect my story is a common one, one of the very many stories of post-war Japan that were never openly spoken, just known. Whispered gossips of bored housewives, slipped tongues of drunken men.
All of us survived the war. We have kept our heads down, worked hard, put our best foot forward. And here we are. But as long as we live, as long as I live, the war does not end.
You want to hear my story, you say.
Would you still want to hear it, if the story I tell is a love story? Because that is my story – nothing more, nothing less.
OUT OF NOWHERE
People had him down as a murderer from early on – the Herald Sun called him the Queensland Killer, which made me laugh when I saw it for how could that have described Frank, though it is fair to say I might not have known him as well as I thought. There were some bodies on the path he left behind. It was a strange thing to consider he might have had nothing to do with all that bloodletting. But I had my doubts.
Frank always said he believed in God and that he wished God would leave him alone. Look what happens when he pays you any attention, Frank said. Like none of all of the bad luck in his life had anything to do with him. From when he was a boy God had his eye on him, so he told me. God sought him out in the congregation. A saint doesn’t ask to be a saint, he told me, nor a sinner a sinner. And forever after he’s been cursed with God’s interest. Well, if that is true, perhaps that would explain all that happened to poor Frank Neely, my husband, father of my child. Either way I doubt it.
Katherine Bracewell slips her free hand inside the collar of her nightdress, feeling for the pocket-watch that hangs around her neck. She pauses before drawing it out, as though its sturdy tick against her skin might be all that’s keeping her heartbeat in check. But the ticking also tells her that it’s late – or perhaps early; it cannot be long before dawn. In a single movement, she pulls on the yellow ribbon and flicks open the watch-case, the mother-of-pearl face shimmery even in the dark; an hour until sunrise, at most. She checks the sky – plum-purple still, through the leaves. She hopes an hour is enough. The hole doesn’t have to be big, but it ought to be deep.
She leans against the oak, where it forks in two. The weight, the bundle in her left arm, is hardly anything, but also everything. Philip stands in the small clearing, at the spot they’ve chosen. When he turns to her, his expression says, Are we still doing this? She nods, and he picks up his spade. She can’t bear the forgiveness in her husband’s eyes; she can’t bear any of it, and she looks away, listening to the thud and huff of spade through soil. Her head’s light, hazy, the opposite to her heart. If it weren’t for Lucille, asleep in her room not a hundred yards away, thumb in her mouth, Katherine would gladly have hurled her swollen heart into the hole too.
The New Kid
The Day I Stopped Aging
This story begins on my birthday, because that’s the day I stopped aging. If you were
looking over my shoulder, you would have seen a pair of waxen numerals: the bold digits one and four. White with blue trim, molten beneath their individual flaming wicks, and set atop a generic sheet cake. My expression as blank as that birthday cake. Skin as pale as fondant icing.
The problem was that I’d turned fourteen last year, too.
This was the year that I became a vampire. Stick with me here; this is not a tale of the
supernatural. If I told you this was a true story, you’d think, well, there are no such things as
vampires. And that’s true, so think about it that way. I don’t mean to say I was ametaphorical vampire, sucking the joy from a room, but I was eternally a teenager, so…yeah. I wasn’t literally a creature of the night, stalking and draining the blood from lifeless victims, yet there were plenty who would believe just that.
Let me start over. This was also the year I stopped lying and I don’t want to start this
story with something that sounds like a lie.
THE GIRL WITH THE LIGHT EYES
My madam is looking like she is crying but inside I know that she is not. Tears spill out of her eyes and spread the makeups that is on her cheeks. It is like rivers parting mud.
We are in their living room. I am standing. They are sitting on the leather sofa that the madam shipped in from Milan. They have arranged themselves on it like so. Her in the same Gucci swimsuit and wrapper that she was wearing when she took Frieda to the hotel pool to swim; him in his flowing white agbada. He is as cool as cucumbers. Me, my blood is cooking my body despite the cold that is coming from the wall mounted AC and is beating me like a stick.
“We looked everywhere. Really,” the Madam is saying in her British English. “It’s like she vanished into thin air.”
I clear my throat and still my feet because I want to rush at her and crack her head and have the truth spill out of it like coconut meat. I drag my eyes up to her face. All is uninteresting except the mouth – a gash of expensive red.
THE LOST DETECTIVE
4 July 2001
Alice shifted in the armchair, felt a prickle of velvet through her thin summer dress. She eyed the two women, Lydia on the large sofa, Catherine on a smaller one near the door. They were talking about wallpaper, which to choose. Mid-afternoon and Lydia was wearing a silk jumpsuit, jade green with narrow straps. Catherine was in ivory lace. Alice took a careful sip from the conical glass, gin burning her tongue. Sunlight flooded through tall, pointed windows, three of them along one wall. It had been a chapel once. Gothic? Words escaped her these days. Fear, on the other hand.
‘Maybe I should just check on––’
‘It’s fine, the pram’s right there.’ Lydia gestured outside. ‘If she starts bawling, you’ll know. Trust me, children are designed to survive. It’s the mothers who struggle.’ She laughed.
‘He’s called Felix,’ Alice said.
Lydia frowned. ‘Of course.’
‘Christ,’ Catherine said, ‘my Emily’s a nightmare at the moment. Such a little madam. You wait, it’s fun, fun, fun all the way.’
Alice peered through the windows but the pram was not visible from her end. Lydia had made sure of that, insisting she take the armchair, pressing her down with the words, ‘You need to relax.’