Christopher Allen starts his collection with an introductory piece comparing flash fiction with various things, various concepts: “If flash were a gun it would be the SwissMiniGun – the smallest gun ever.” He also compares flash to a Picasso that packs a surprising punch of surrealism; he compares it to a friend whose brief but fragrant hugs linger all day.
It’s an interesting opening. The gun he speaks of might be small, but all guns are dangerous and potentially deadly. Flash may be short but it is mighty. It is deep, with an ocean full of rarely sighted creatures beneath its surface. It might look still but it is teeming with action when you peel back the top layer. It might look bright and cheerful but it has a darkness behind its smile.
Flash fiction is a difficult art to master. I know because I am still trying, and learning all the time. Reading a collection like “Other Household Toxins” is like taking a masterclass, but it’s not going to be easy. You’re not going to get a one dimensional step by step formula. You’re going to get multi-layered, ten-dimensional, complex stories that are made of blood, sweat, snot and guts, and that challenge your beliefs, your prejudices, your emotions, in ways you hoped they would never be challenged.
There are 49 stories here and they all deal with life, death, loss, love; and difficult (sometimes impossible) relationships. The father figure looms large. The character in several of the stories wants his father to be perfect and wants to be seen as perfect himself, to be accepted. But life is not like that. Families are not like that. Families, and the homes in which we all grow, are full of toxins and we choke on them as we move through life.
Discovering one’s own sexuality and place in the world is also a theme that runs through these wonderful tales; taking innocence and desire and weaving them together seamlessly.
I could write a review that is twenty pages long, but for brevity (for we are, after all, dealing with flash!) I will focus on some of my highlights.
The Birds in the Gate is about a home without a mother. She has recently passed and the son is struggling with the way his father wants him to be. He wants the boy to stop being a sissy and man up because that’s “normal”, but the boy is sensitive and more like his mother. He can’t find friends, because he is not like the other boys, so instead nurtures a clutch of baby birds that are nesting in the recess of his garden gate. And even that does not end well. (I wasn’t good at being a boy, and now I wasn’t good at being a mother either). It’s a poignant story of trying not to disappoint, and trying hard to find a place where you are needed and fit in. The best moment the narrator has with his father is at the end when the gate has to be dismantled and they are doing “man’s work”!
The Ground Above My Feet is a painful wrench to read. It is so beautifully crafted. Told from a surprising (at the end) POV, it whacks you over the head and in the heart with such powerful emotion. A man’s love for his son is the overwhelming message here. The desire to do anything, say anything, to make him happy no matter what life is throwing in the way. The ending made me gasp… sadness and tragedy, and the truth that even the strongest love cannot keep us here if we do not want to stay. (He didn’t blame me for leaving, didn’t like the world much either, said hate breeding hate breeding hate must keep it turning…)
My Boy Winston is about regret at the choices we make in life and the fantasy of what might have been had we taken a different route. (I scan the beach for a father to blame, and for a second’s insanity I wonder if I might be that father).
Sisters is about sexual discovery and awakening. The longing for something we don’t quite understand but that is delicious nonetheless.
A Practised Silence is cleverly done and my second favourite after The Ground Above My Feet. It’s about the words we don’t say to each other and the dance we do around the people we are closest to but that we don’t really know how to be with.
Christopher’s use of language is extraordinary. His writing is a pleasant hybrid of North American and European, and he sounds equally convincing in each, as the words tumble from his mind to the page with ease and fluidity. Every character we encounter is unique, quirky, troubled – but believable. Some are likeable. Some you feel you might cross the street to avoid.
But we can each find ourselves in this collection. Something will resonate, because Christopher Allen has an enviable knack of grabbing the finest nuances of life and writing about them in a way that exposes their gritty, bloody truth.
I need to read it again!