Penny Simpson Wins Rhys Davies Competition

6 Feb 2008

Penny Simpson, whose novel  The Banquet of Esther Rosenbaum  will be published in May 2008 by Alcemi, has been announced as the winner of the 2007 Rhys Davies Short Story Competition.

Over brunch at the Brazz restaurant, Wales Millennium Centre, winner Penny picked up a cheque for £1000 for her story, The Eagle in the Maze. Announcing the winner, judges Tessa Hadley and Meic Stephens noted that Penny’s story would appear in an anthology of nominated stories from the competition, entitled The Eagle in the Maze, published by Cinnamon Press and launched at this year’s Hay Festival. The story will also be broadcast on BBC Radio Wales on 17 February.

Penny said, "Set a stone-throw from Monmouth High Street, The Eagle in the Maze is about the unusual friendship which forms between a woman and a stonemason who are both dirt poor. In spite of this, she commissions him to make her a huge old-fashioned monument to herself, since she is dying of cancer. I am delighted that my writing has received this boost in the run up to my first novel’s launch in May 08.

The Banquet of Esther Rosenbaum is set in 1920s Weimar Berlin and is a novel about exile, told by a Jewish chef who uses extraordinary recipes as a subversive form of storytelling. Set on the eve of world war, it brings together the burlesque and the tragic, drawing on historical characters such as Greta Garbo and Kabarett legend Klabund, in addition to the atmosphere and cultural innovations of 1920s Berlin.

Esther Rosenbaum could give Nigella Lawson a run for her money: she is the creator of chocolate hearts stuffed with saffron pen nibs, jugged hares served in toy drums and an edible Cuckoo Clock, filled with marzipan birds that hide a terrible secret. All is served up at a very special banquet in an inflation-hungry city edging towards disaster.

At times, the Berlin setting is more reminiscent of nineties’ Hoxton in London's East End; a celebrity chef and her art collector patron winning headlines; a succession of artists misbehaving badly and a restaurant that becomes a mecca for the glittering circle attached to playwright-of-the-moment, Bertolt Brecht. But it also captures a city at a time of remarkable change, with poignant echoes of a lost world now found largely in a museum’s display case, or hidden away in private memories.

"My story lies buried in fragments, rather than in the city’s more public spaces," Penny explains. "The past is captured in scents and tastes - by a storytelling chef who improvises with her recipes and her black market finds and in the survival of something as fragile as a challa cloth made for a Rabbi who believed in debate and progress. But it is food that is the constant presence; it’s usually presented as a gift between people, a means of bonding when so much else is under threat. It’s also symbolic, reflecting the contrast between denial and excess, the extremes between which all the characters live."

This is Penny’s debut novel. Her short stories have appeared in anthologies from Bloomsbury, Virago, Tindal Street Press and Honno; DOGdays, her debut collection of short fiction was published in 2003 (Gomer Press). She is a former art student, opera house cleaner, journalist and winner of Barclays/Theatre Management Association Theatre Critic of the Year (1991). She currently works as Head of Press at Welsh National Opera.

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