Eugen Bacon reviews Captives by Angela Meyer
by Angela Meyer
Reviewed by EUGEN BACON
The photographs, when they come out, look just like Victorian-era death portraits, only my subjects are still alive. (15)
Noir graphics on the front cover of Captives foreshadow light and shade, life and death. A reader might approach this book of flash fiction with curiosity, wondering if these themed fragments are for everyone. But it is doubtable that one needs to find a penchant for the short form to locate these stories as windows to the real world. Clever harmony, or discord, in the text invites this reader to what author Sandra Horn calls a suggestion of more, a glimpse or hint of a wider story (2015).
Angela Meyer’s compilation, her first book of fiction, is disciplined. There is thought, attention and restraint in its writing. It is this restraint, Meyer’s confidence in the reader—their ability to decipher—that makes this body of micro-fictions compelling. The prose is uncomplicated, taut at its best, poignant. It transverses times, invites the reader to years 1883, 1918, 1934, 1971, to yesterday, then and now.
Captives opens with a pocket-sized epic, ‘The day before the wedding’ (3), where a bride-to-be runs onto the marsh, sees her lover through a hood of dew, halts: his gun is trained on her, not the ducks:
Bang! Another duck pivoted sideways and spun towards the ground. That was her cousin’s doing. Still her love had the gun trained on her, and she stood, and even when he lowered it and his expression revealed play, a joke, she knew she’d seen his true face.
This opener sets the assemblage’s tone. True to the short story, the narratives have the ability to ‘throw the reader straight into a world, and pull them out again just as quickly, leaving them asking questions, and constantly thinking’ (Canlin 2015). Aligned with the title Captives, the collection’s characters are incarcerated in some physical, physiological or psychological condition. The reader encounters Miranda’s flighty mind in ‘Uproar’ (17):
A pregnant woman stared at Miranda’s orange jumpsuit. It was what He had told her to wear today. Miranda imagined the train was a rocket and made the sound of thrusters between her teeth. That way it would get her to the hospital faster.
‘Are you lost?’ asked the pregnant woman.
Miranda wasn’t sure.
She said, ‘They don’t call it Bedlam anymore, you know.’
Each titbit—longer ones exist—offers insight into the human nature or condition, obeys a propensity to confound a reader’s expectations, as author Paul March-Russell suggests a short story might (2009, p. viii). A finger of chill touches careless memory in ‘Thirteen tiles’ (28) where reminiscence compounds a man’s entrapment in a windowless room, a rectangular one. Suspense snuggles with idiosyncrasy in ‘Foreign bodies’ (31) where small-shouldered, nondescript Kate asserts authority in a simple yet complex act of swallowing: objects. Slowly she bulks to a grim conclusion in the women’s cells. Then the reader cannot help but share the childless woman’s longing in ‘Empty cradle’ (39):
Mostly the desire was so great I knew I had to hide it from myself, but seeing Isabella’s bloody bairn crying hotly in the morning had wrenched me like a neep out of the ground.
Insight arrives in staccato, like the score of horror movie music, in ‘Rock, paper, severance’ (74), a story that invites the reader to a sense of foreboding of which the hitchhiking runway is yet unaware:
He didn’t normally pick up redheads. But her skin was pearly, almost translucent, like the brucite. He put a rock in her hand … ‘I’m tired,’ she said, and mimed sleeping.
I pulled over for her and she won’t even have a chat, he thinks, glancing at a dark blue vein across her chest.
The collection is partitioned into seven thematically linked subsets: On/off, Up/down, In/out, With/without, Here/there, Then/now and Until. Meyers uses a recurring motif of conflict, aloneness, knowing, unknowing. She offers a strong sense of person, of place … Her flash fiction is set around the world; there is, for example, Norwegian ‘The north’ (4) with its ore currency or Scottish ‘Highland pickers’ (35), with its character McCulloch and his dialogue: They’d nae get a hoold of tha’.
Speaking to the subsets, On/off appears to be about tragic knowing, perhaps a dawning or resignation … Ol’ Henry in ‘Brand new’ (10) is a startling find with his ‘permanent present tense’ (Corkin 2013):
He looks out the window, his mind winding back, moving on. But his body is still turned toward me, radiating warmth.
Up/down pays attention to ‘the suicides’, the lost—all people—even the wrecked, like the woman in ‘The old man’s dog’ (18), a mongrel bitch. In/out bears themes of being between worlds; for instance, ‘One of the crew’ (23) portrays corporeal presence yet psychological float, while ‘Amsterdam’ (25) depicts a narrator’s solitude in a world filled with strangers. With/without places emphasis on the fragility of being … Like the narrator and the ‘missing’ little boy in ‘A cage went in search of a bird’ (41):
When the boy rolls over in the night he takes the blanket with him, locking it down with surprisingly strong arms. It’s the only thing that annoys me about him. He’s been in my room for three days … He doesn’t ask for much.
I didn’t take him—kidnap or abduct him, I mean. He followed me.
Here/there is a backdrop to living and dying; presence and absence, a person’s ‘episodes’ … Then/now is mesmeric with in-the-moment stories, reminiscence stories, engagement with the fringes of society. In the heart of normality, the reader is suddenly plunged into the abnormality of a truth (such as infidelity) … The closing section Until is a promise, even if it arrives in the face of apocalypse, or a child in the train window, or the blackness of space, or a blue-white current of death that leaves a skeleton, reaching …
Even as longer pieces like ‘Nineteen’ (81) could be clipped or tightened the writing stays full of light and darkness. It startles. It prompts the reader to reflect, to cross-examine existence. Meyer captures the everyday with conflict and tension, with a subtle interrogation of life and death. Some of her stories are potent but forgettable with stronger distraction. Others like ‘The day before the wedding’ linger, summon your mind to constant thinking as you lie in bed at dusk awaiting the nudge of sleep: ‘they come to visit for a while, take you somewhere you didn’t expect and then put you back where you started before you’d even realised you were gone’ (Ariss 2015). The reader is more than a witness; Captives invites them to enter this space, and be present.
Ariss, Paul 2015, http://www.cutalongstory.com/authors/paul-ariss/1363.html (accessed 6 June 2015)
Canlin, Alistair 2015, http://www.cutalongstory.com/authors/alistair-canlin/1246.html (accessed 6 June 2015)
Corkin, Suzanne 2013, Permanent Present Tense: The Unforgettable Life of the Amnesic Patient, H. M, Basic Books
CUT 2015, http://www.cutalongstory.com (accessed 6 June 2015)
Horn, Sandra 2015, http://www.cutalongstory.com/authors/sandra-horn/1387.html (accessed 6 June 2015)
March-Russell, Paul 2009, The Short Story: An Introduction, Edinburgh University Press
Permanent present tense 2013, ‘Permanent present tense by Suzanne Corkin’, http://permanentpresenttense.com (accessed 6 June 2015)
Rintoul, Don 2015, http://www.cutalongstory.com/authors/don-rintoul/1355.html (accessed 6 June 2015)
EUGEN BACON studied at Maritime Campus – Greenwich University, UK, less than two minutes’ walk from The Royal Observatory of the Greenwich Meridian. Her arty muse fostered itself within the baroque setting of the Old Royal Naval College, and Eugen found herself a computer graduate mentally re-engineered into creative writing. She is now a PhD candidate in Writing by artefact and exegesis at Swinburne University of Technology. Her short story A puzzle piece was shortlisted in the Lightship Publishing (UK) international short story prize 2013 and is published in Lightship Anthology 3.