Soul Etchings by Sandra Arnold

A review of the literary flash fiction collection Soul Etchings by Sandra Arnold.

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I had not read any flash fiction before this collection, but if much of the genre is comparable to Sandra Arnold’s Soul Etchings, I’m now a devoted fan. It’s compiled of 57 tiny stories, all perfectly formed, complete with plot, characters, searing language, and often an unexpected left turn. At the pen of a less competent writer it might seem akin to setting up a joke and awaiting the punchline, or wading through some words before the predictable twist, but Arnold has a knack for making you truly care about her characters—making you empathise with them, but leaving you pining to know more. Each ending seems a painful loss; each story contains enough substance to sustain you for days. You can’t gorge on these stories. They’re too powerfully rich, too intense. I took to reading one every morning and letting it settle and linger; it gave the day a slightly other-worldly, shimmering tone that I hugely enjoyed. Now I’ve finished the collection I might just have to start it all over again. Reality is simply too gruelling without a dose of ethereal Arnold enchantment.

Some of the stories have an element of magical realism about them: people fly, thoughts can be heard, ghosts smirk and wave, houses become angry with their inhabitants, Tom Thumb lives. Others are straightforward realism, and some leave you guessing. All are underpinned by a profound understanding of the most fundamental human emotions: love, fury and loss. There are a good many missing children in this collection, and many stories are narrated by children with a poignant childlike muddled comprehension of the adult world and their parents’ peculiar compulsions and preoccupations. In ‘The Red Shoes,’ a dance-obsessed girl yearns for a new pair of tap shoes, and her mother promises to buy cheaper cleaning products to fund the purchase; the story of the girl’s preoccupation with dance is interwoven with the mother’s preoccupation with cleaning, until at last both get what they want by moving into a tent in the garden so the house will stay perfectly clean. It’s so slowly, subtly accomplished that only in the last few lines do you fully comprehend their total descent into obsession and insanity. Their everyday domestic concerns of dancing recitals and polishing windows gradually unravel and reassemble into something horrific. To accomplish that over a few hundred pages would be impressive enough; to manage it with three is staggering.

Arnold has a particular talent for describing the way emotions reside in the physical self, of which I’m hugely envious. In so few words, descriptions have an immense responsibility—we have to envisage the scene and understand the characters, all as the plot advances, often in only a sentence. Over and over she accomplishes it. In ‘The Glory Tree,’ a woman returns to her childhood home, and “within minutes she felt her overwound heart slow to a steadier beat.” Rhythmic, telling, perfect. In ‘The Dragonfly’ a father tries to stop his son writing poetry (parents interfering with their children’s literary ambitions makes for something of a Greek chorus), complaining he’ll be thought of as a “bloody nancy.” He’s forced to play rugby as he ruminates on the right word to describe a dragonfly’s wings. When the word finds him and he goes to finish his poem, “His notebook is ripped. His jar is smashed. His dragonfly is crushed on the carpet. The sound of his father’s breathing. Simon’s heart breaking.” Oh, and mine with it. You couldn’t portray that scene with fewer words; no, nor greater poignancy.

Appropriately, the words people can hear and cannot hear, speak and cannot speak, are a repeated motif in this work. Characters hear what others cannot, often after operations or accidents. In ‘See what I See’ Emily finds her hearing improves after a cataract operation, until she hears “the sighing of all the folk who’d passed this way.” A childlike sensitivity to emotions and body language; how vulnerable that sensitivity may leave you, since others mock and fear it: this may be the one single unifying theme of this magnificent collection. Thank goodness Sandra Arnold has retained this sensitivity, and can transpose it so gracefully to the page.

Melissa Todd completed an MA in creative writing at Canterbury Christchurch in 2009, and writes novels, short stories and opinion pieces.

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