Tuesday, September 20, 2011

104. The Life of Worm by Ken Barris

Ken Barris's The Life of Worm was shortlisted for the 11th Caine Prize for African Writing, 2010. The story was first published in New Writings from Africa Anthology published by Johnson and King James Book, Cape Town. This story, like all the shortlisted stories, are part of the A Life in Full Anthology published in 2010.

The Life of a Worm is a story about a man and his dog, Worm. The man lives behind a series of metal doors, motion sensors and several electronic security protection. He is also protected by Worm, a ferocious dog he struggles to handle on their daily outings. When people approach them, praising the dog, the man becomes scared, afraid that the dog would tear off intruder's face. From his internal conversation, we see that the man is unable to control his dog. He is also afraid of something: armed-burglars? He is needs this protection and this makes him unable to sleep properly, always checking on his security detail. With alarms going off randomly, his alarming security detail is a worry to his neighbours.

Another worry of Worm's owner is his neighbours infested oak tree. This oak tree has bent at such an acute angle that any strong winds or storms would fall it and in falling destroy the man's house. The man has estimated the extent of this damage should it occur, arriving at the conclusion that his garage would not be destroyed.

Taking his dog for walk one day, the man sees that a huge trunk-like stem of the oak, which he dreamt had broken off, had actually broken and and destroyed a part of the wall. He wants to confront his neighbour but continues his walk with Worm. Then a spaniel approaches Worm and Worm grabs the spaniel and strangles it to death. The man cannot make Worm release this spaniel from his jaw. And powerless, he waits till Worm, in his own time, releases this dead dog.

This story, written in the first person present, is more of an internal dialogue and desperation of a man. Taken at face-value it portrays nothing. Absolutely nothing; however, further reflection shows man's daily worries about security, death, things he cannot control, things he procrastinates and more. Would he be attacked by the numerous robbers parading the street or by any of the reported incidents of burglary? Would the rotten oak tree fall and destroy his house? Would Worm kill someone? It has this Kafka-esque feel, for things begin almost at nothing and develops into something different.

This story is worth its inclusion in the shortlist. As to it winning the award would have depended on the meanings attributed it not what it says. And since attribution is a subjective endeavour, it is difficult to speak for or against it not winning.
Brief Bio: Ken Barris lives in Cape Town, South Africa. He's a poet, novelist, and short story author. His short story The Quick Brown Fox won the 2006 Thomas Pringle Award. In 1996 his novel The Jailer's Book  won the M-Net Book Prize; it also received Honourable Mention at the Noma Award. His Poetry in New Coin won him the Sydney Clouts Memorial Award. An Advertisement for Air, a collection of poetry also won him the Ingrid Jonker Prize. He has been twice shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2003 and 2010 for Clubfoot and The Life of Worm, respectively. The latter was also shortlisted for Studzinski/PEN Award in 2009. Barris' novel What Kind of Child was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Prize for Best Book for Africa Region and the Herman Charles Bosman Fiction Prize. (Read about the author here)

ImageNations Rating: 4.5/6.0

Other Caine Prize Shortlist: How Shall we Kill the Bishop (2010) 


  1. I've somehow missed your blog this month. This sounds like an intriguing story.

  2. This is a new-to-me book. It does sound like it shows how people sometimes let their worries take over their lives.

  3. @MW... it happens. So much to do so little time

  4. @Anna, sorry if my review sound deceptive. This is a short story shortlisted for the Caine Prize. And yes it is about how a man's worry took over his life.

  5. Huh, this sounds like an interesting story, though perhaps not perfect for me as I tend to enjoy stories where more happens.

  6. @Amy, you hit it right. There is less going on. Most of what was going on was in the head of the protagonist.

  7. Sounds like a fascinating mood-piece. Thanks for telling us about it!

  8. It is available for downloading on the net, possibly at the Caine Prize website.


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