NZ writer wins Commonwealth Short Story Prize   13 Jun 2012

Anna Blair

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Emma Martin, a New Zealand writer, was announced this weekend as winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Martin’s story, ‘Two Girls in a Boat’, follows a young woman returning to New Zealand from London after the end of a relationship. ‘Two Girls in a Boat’ will be particularly relatable to expats, or former expats, but themes of the story are universal and Martin’s language and images are beautiful throughout.

This is the first time a New Zealander has won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, previously called the Commonwealth Short Story Competition, since it began in 1996. Writers from New Zealand have previously won a number of Commonwealth Book Prizes, awarded by the Commonwealth Foundation for published novels.

The Commonwealth Short Story Prize aims to discover and publicise the best of unpublished short stories from throughout the British Commonwealth. Regional winners were announced last week. Martin was announced as the winner for the Pacific region last Monday and as the overall winner on Friday evening. The awards ceremony was held at Hay-on-Wye, as part of the Hay Festival.

Martin was born in Dunedin and lived in the United Kingdom for an extended period. In 2010, she completed her Masters of Creative Writing at Victoria University in Wellington, where she wrote ‘Two Girls in a Boat’.

‘Two Girls in a Boat’ has a relatively simple plot, which Martin brings to life through poetic imagery and characters that have complexity without being overwrought.

Many will be able to relate to the protagonist, Hannah, who returns from London to Wellington after six years. Hannah’s memories of her relationship with a girl named Zoë, the end of which was the catalyst for her return to New Zealand, remain with her as she reacclimatises to her homeland.

Many of Martin’s images –a smaller house, relatives who have grown older- will feel familiar to readers returning to places they left long ago. The feeling of being suspended between two countries comes through clearly in a passage about looking into the closet and remembering other clothes, not there, and the memories associated with them.

Martin captures the illusory nature of memory well throughout Two Girls in a Boat. The past appears in the strong, surreal way that most would struggle to articulate; as Hannah’s hallucinatory thoughts fade her former apartment “melt[s] and collapse[s]” and “the sun blink[s] out like a light”.

Gradually, though, New Zealand becomes less a grey frame for memories and is filled with its own details, like a tattoo of a blue swallow or Hannah’s mother gardening. Hannah’s surroundings become real, though this doesn’t change the ambivalence with which New Zealand is seen. A feijoa tree grows in a garden, but it isn’t, here, the idealised source of fruit dreamed of by expats in the UK; instead, it is symbolic of another failed relationship.

At one point, Hannah’s mother attempts a discussion on her daughter’s sexuality and tells her she “just wants [her] to be true to [her]self”. “But be true to which self?” Hannah asks herself. This question acknowledges not just the narrator’s conflicted feelings about Zoe and Ben, a man she has begun dating, but also a larger gap between the person she is in London and in Wellington.

As the story develops, Hannah becomes more embedded in her New Zealand life, but the feeling of suspension between two worlds, and two people, that pervades the story never disappears, resulting in an understated yet enigmatic ending.

It’s a story that leaves one eager to read more of Martin’s writing. The author, luckily, is currently working on a book of short stories. For the moment, ‘Two Girls in a Boat’ is available to read on Granta’s website.

Anna Blair is a freelance writer and architectural historian studying hotels from the 1920s. She currently divides her time between Paris and East London. Further work can be found at her blog – Dispatches from Europe.

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