Where Oceans Meet and other stories by Heather McQuillan
Oxfordshire: Reflex Press (2019)
RRP: $25.00. Pb, 109pp
Soul Etchings: collected stories by Sandra Arnold
Retreat West Books (2019)
RRP: £3.99. Pb, 182pp
Reviewed by Rebecca Styles
Heather McQuillan, in her essay in Bonsai: Best small stories from Aotearoa New Zealand (2018), said that flash fiction should give the reader what they expect in a story “such as character, setting, crisis and redress, need, by the brevity of words, to be merely suggested in the text, yet not so vaguely that the whole piece unravels and meaning is lost.” For the vast majority of her Where oceans meets and other stories (2019) McQuillan achieves this aim with sharply realist stories.
McQuillan’s strength is the stories in which two people are together and yet miles apart. It’s a theme that runs through the title story of the collection in which a couple visit Cape Reinga and watch the Pacific and Tasman oceans “collide in plumes of give and take”. Yet, in the couple there’s more of a sense of each going their different ways. ‘This is how it begins’ is about a father listening to cricket on the radio while the daughter collects stones, slurps a stolen can of beer, and wants to tumble in the water, even though she’s warned, “This is not a swimming beach.” A sense of disconnection continues in ‘A Loose Filling’ where a wife cannot bring herself to tell her husband of 30 years about being raped. And in ‘Class 1 Haemorrhage’ the anxiety of expectations sees a daughter and her parents drift apart.
Of the more playful pieces, ‘Misspoken’, jumbles language while still making sense. While others start off with a foot in realism before sliding into dense figurative language such as ‘In the Middle of a Ball of Wool’. Although I liked the philosophical idea behind the story it slid a little too far from my grasp. But I did like ‘Sisters’, in which the shortness of the text matches the burst of violence. And ‘The Weekend Shift’ where the boy’s hair smells like “whichever shampoo was on special”. The macabre content of ‘Dem Bones’ is delightful.
McQuillan, in her essay about the craft of flash fiction, notes: “Often I find myself in a struggle with key words that have ended up on the page but do not resonate with something I’m trying to do.” And there were a few places where I questioned her word choice. Most often it was when she reached for a formal word when an informal or colloquial term would have been more in keeping. Instead of “artful text” in ‘Beach Feet’ would ‘book’ not do? In the same story, the character is “seeking daily bread” rather than ‘buying’ it in the local SuperValue. While I’m sure those words were chosen for a reason, the rest of the story is rooted in the concrete sensory details of the environment, and the formal language jarred slightly.
What distracted from the work in the first half of the book was the use of footnotes to translate Te Reo or explain Māori legends. I assume, given McQuillan’s publisher is based in the UK, this was an editing choice for the benefit of an overseas audience, but I wished they weren’t there at all. A Kiwi audience will know what tikanga, poumanu, whero, wiri, koru or karakia mean. And if the curious overseas reader cannot ascertain the meaning from the context of the story, they can, in the words of advice in Tusiata Avia’s poem ‘Some notes for critics’, “Google it.”
In Sandra Arnold’s Soul Etchings, the threat and realisation of violence or danger permeates the opening stories, from doomed ballooning trips to a little girl running home to show her mother her gold star and discovering she’s dead, to violence against children and women. We also have a daughter’s revenge on her father’s extreme stoicism. The violence is somewhat relentless, though realistically drawn, and we come to expect the wallop of brutality in the stories. They show the sudden wrench of violence in lives and the reader is left to imagine the fall-out.
Loneliness and grief also feature prominently in the collection. In ‘Marléne’ a man falls in love with a mannequin. We also have the grief of losing children in the ‘The doll’, and in some stories there’s a sense of a child being a spirit who is looking in on the mortal world. Children are also aligned with nature and the arts in opposition to the adults who are associated with the more practical elements of life and are trying to make the kids conform.
The stories have a similar tone and structure in relation to each other and are mostly written in a realist style. It would be more satisfying to see Arnold play with the form a bit more. The stories, in the words of McQuillan’s essay, gave me what I expected in a short story, but what I would have liked more of is the experimentation with form. In saying that, I did enjoy ‘The road to nowhere’ in which the story forms a single sentence. The lack of punctuation leant to the relentlessness of life, which matched the content. To me, this was a great piece where the form and content married well.
Frankie McMillan explains that flash is “a form that requires far more active participation from the reader than longer works”. However, in Arnold’s collection I felt the themes of the stories were told too readily. While on the one hand, this shows how clear and direct Arnold’s stories are, on the other hand I feel like she could have borrowed some poetic devices, or ‘showed’ us more rather than told us what the characters are thinking. In ‘Louder than words’ we’re told the female narrator doesn’t want to live the rural lifestyle with her partner anymore so there’s no surprise when she up and leaves. Yet there are examples that develop the tension between characters very well. In ‘The lighthouse keeper’, for example, we are shown more effectively the divide between husband and wife and their ideas of bliss which is a far more satisfying read.
Like McQuillan’s stories, a lot of the narratives in the Sandra Arnold’s collection Soul Etchings have appeared online in local and international flash fiction volumes. Both are accomplished writers and their volumes will add to the burgeoning interest and publication of flash fiction.
Rebecca Styles (PhD in creative writing at Massey University) has written a novel based on an ancestor’s experience of mental illness at Seacliff Asylum. She’s had short stories published in New Zealand journals and anthologies, and teaches short story writing at Wellington High School Community Education Centre.