Kindness is dead. She was knifed, no axed, no shot by her boyfriend, a lover, a man in a red car that was not a silver Pajero and the five ladies who were her colleagues in the hair saloon (sic) where she was the best (and cheapest) braid plaiter in Harare can’t get enough of her death. They weave it in and out of their day, around their customers, a blind beggar and his seeing-eye boy – both barefoot, the tennis-playing lady they reckon is no better than she ought to be because she works in a bank and Plaxides the orange-eating friend from a shop down the road. There is no bit of flesh, no juicy morsel of gossip these ladies won’t gleefully tuck into.
Petina Gappah’s story The News Of Her Death was one of the six shortlisted entries in this year’s Sunday Time EFG Short Story Award. Before last night’s dinner at the Stationer’s Hall in the City to announce the winner, the shortlisted entries were read out over two very entertaining evenings at Foyles Auditorium. On the first night Alix Christies’s The Dacha, Unbeschert by Edith Pearlman, and The Phosphorescence by Nicholas Ruddock were read by Gina Bell, Tom Hollander and Juliet Stevenson. On the second it was the turn of Jonathan Tel’s The Human Phonograph read by Selina Lo, Gappah’s tale read by Chipo Chung and Colum McCann’s What Time Is It Now, Where You Are? read by David Soul.
Tel beat over 800 other entrants to win the prize of £30,000 and is the first British winner. The Human Phonograph also won the 2015 Commonwealth Short Story Prize and Arafat’s Elephant Tel’s collection of stories about Israelis and Palestinians was shortlisted for the PEN/Hemingway Award.And the winner is…. Jonathan Tel (above). The Human Phonograph is the story of young newly-weds living in Mao’s China, who are separated after nine months when the husband is sent to the mysterious nuclear base Factory 221. After seven years he manages to get his wife a job in this desolate world and as they get to know each other again they struggle to find the ease of the love they once shared. The wife, mystified by her husband’s frequent motorbike expeditions with his assistant, begs him to let her in on his secret. And after some persuasion he does. They are collectors of folk songs, which the assistant, the human phonograph of the title, captures in his head and can reproduce at will, like a recording. Andrew Holgate, one of the judges and Literary Editor of the Sunday Times, called it 'a remarkable and very moving feat of storytelling'.