The Best Small Fictions 2017, Amy Hempel, Guest Editor.
Foreword by Tara L. Masih, Series Editor.
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Braddock Avenue Books (2017).
RRP: $16. Pb, 164pp.
ISBN: 10: 0998966717, ISBN: 13: 9780998966717.
Reviewed by Jessie Neilson.
As outlined in Tara Masih’s foreword to this collection, ‘small fictions’ are known for their extreme brevity, some whittled down in essence to a paragraph only. Whereas in longer work the writer has time and space to develop a narrative with all its soarings and surges in plot happenings and dimension-building of characters, in small fiction there is no such possibility. In fact, here the challenge is to present, in entirely succinct form, either a complete work in few words, or else a glimpse of a story with a conclusive finish or halting. Word choice is optimal; opening lines can carry the spark of the piece.
This collection of The Best Small Fictions, guest edited by Amy Hempel, is predominantly sourced from American and Canadian writers; however there are also contributions from England, Germany, the West Indies, and Japan. In addition, Frankie McMillan and Heather McQuillan represent us from New Zealand. Ranging from fewer than one hundred words to a thousand, these pieces are short and snappy, sometimes poetic in their beauty and remembrances, while at other times brutal in content. Themes include nature and people’s interaction with it, relationships and domesticity, waking, ethnicity, and childhood and memories, among others.
These writers (and in many cases these contributions) have been previously published, often involved with creative writing programmes, and working across writing forms. As there are 55 pieces here and little space to discuss them widely, it seems pertinent to pick out a few as they illustrate themes.
Nature and our place within the wider world are themes explored in William Woolfitt’s two pieces. In Hatchlings his delicate prose outlines a countermeasure against a violation of nature, where a night time crew patrols the beaches of leatherback turtles. Gangs poach their eggs to sell on the black market as aphrodisiacs. ‘Slime drinkers’, these recipients are termed. His following story, What the Beechtree Knows is beautifully descriptive, where he learned the ways of the forest and nature’s remedies: ‘From my parents, I know that hickory is for fires that burn longest. And catalpa tree for bait, my father used the worms that ate the catalpa’s seedpods when he fished Shavers Fork. Elderberry for the dye my mother called Queen Esther purple’ (p 58).
In Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello’s Sea Urchin it is the lore of the sea that the grandmother passes on, as she pries abalone off slick rocks, dropping it all into a kelp mixture so that it: ‘sank like a sun into the murk, dissolved’ (p 26). In Len Kuntz’s Summer Scalping: Scarecrows is an entirely different application of landscape and knowledge, opening with the image: ‘Mother teaches us how to steal. / We start with Henderson’s corn field, undercover of the / night, our station wagon skulking down the dusty aisle ends / like a muttering alligator’ (p 8).
Other pieces offer glimpses from childhood and domestic life, such as a father and daughter trying to communicate affection as they eat blue triangle cereal, or the story with an unforgettable image of five young ‘hooligans’ letting loose with ‘warrior pantomimes, small bursts of murderous play that left us bleeding but still friends … nailed up like stars in each other’s minds’ (Keith Woodruff, Summer, p 116).
Others turn to relationships between couples, content, longing, or otherwise. In Karen Brennan’s unsettling 10 Birds a metaphorical influx of birds invades her headspace, and hallucinations rock her world as past and present overlap and images recur: ‘I wondered about the light, its creases within other creases felt like one more duplication, like a memory unmoored to its moment’ (p 64).
Or in Allegra Hyde’s Syndication, where such is the relationship between a couple of doomsday-prepping, bandana-wearing hippies that they are, with vigour, digging their graves, as witnessed by their young children (p 16). Another piece looking at morbidity is poignant in its continuation of loss, or an inability to let go, where a woman crafts a puppet in the image of her dead daughter (Randall Brown, What a Beautiful Dream). In Frankie McMillan’s The Things We Lose, it is also the breakdown, or loss, of a treasured relationship.
Best Small Fictions 2017 is the third collection in this series, and it parades a wide array of writing. Such is the variety of prose and content that it is impossible to identify anything more than broad similarities. So too is the snappiness of length, the bite of words and the flash of scenes, gentle or vicious, highly realistic or absurd.
Whether a reader dips in as the mood takes one, or follows a more assiduous reading approach, this collection will delight or appal, and linger. On further readings specific images and stories will clinch in the reader’s mind, whether that be as a reader witnessing the abuse of a child; the workings of fate in a split second of a blink; young couples imagining future bliss in their present naiveté, or something else entirely.
Jessie Neilson studied English at Otago and also holds qualifications in the areas of second language teaching and library and information studies. She has taught international students here and abroad. Jessie is a regular reviewer for the Otago Daily Times and works in the University of Otago Central Library. She has broad interests in matters literary.