Review: ‘Captives’

CaptivesFCROnline, flash fiction is celebrated, with literally hundreds of thriving micro fiction-writing communities; in print, though – and in the annals of literature – the form still struggles to prove its own legitimacy. Perhaps this is why Angel Meyer has – with this, her debut – taken to the form’s defence; Captives is a pocketbook of intense flash fictions.

My first impression was favourable: Captives is an attractive little book, with tight presentation and a striking, inky art style. Obvious care and attention went into its production; even the font choice seems complementary. I commend all involved at Inkerman & Blunt for their great work.

Inside this impossibly pretty artefact awaited 37 dark and unsettling tales. I’d not read any of Meyer’s fiction before, but had long enjoyed her blog and understood that she’s a bit of a mover and shaker on the lit festival circuit. She’s a bonafide author now; in Captives, I found an impressive new literary voice. Meyer wears her influences on her sleeve, but also readily subverts them. I wouldn’t say I found every story a homerun, but each intrigued in its own way. I got the sense Meyer must’ve had a lot of fun trying on all these different styles. The variety here was impressive. There was supernatural suggestion (‘Glitch’, ‘My Sweetheart Saw a Child’s Face in the Train Window’); dips into history (‘Portrait of a Suicide’ and the deft scene-setting of ‘Automat’); riffs on literary culture (‘Spark’, ‘Booklover’s Corner’); and introspective travel stories, told with verisimilitude (‘Amsterdam’, ‘Halloween in Atlanta’).

Lengths and tones varied, ensuring no one mood lingered too long. Meyer’s hops between eras and headspaces were especially impressive. A sharp observer of human behaviour, she excels at inhabiting characters whose backgrounds are vastly different from her own. In some stories, she even gives voice to actual historical figures (often the darkest or weirdest stories; it’s true, then: real life is stranger than fiction!).

Captives’ stories are batched in seven sections. These have titles like ‘Push/Pull’ and ‘On/Off’, suggesting a theme of opposition and hinting at the specific tensions found within. The sections are a great point to stop and start, though I didn’t notice any huge thematic distinctions between these. To me, the unifying thread throughout was change or uncertainty. (‘Bad things happen. Or they might. At any moment,’ the cover promises.)

As delectable as these stories were, I had to refrain from gorging on too many at once. Despite their brevity, it felt gluttonous reading more than, say, three at a time. I have this problem with novels and short stories, too – particularly those that err towards open-endedness. Upon completing something, I find I need time and distance to reflect, decompress. This is especially true of reading micro-fiction, as the narratives are often particularly spacious. The form is involving for readers. Many of the stories are like little puzzles; close reading is rewarded – and often mandatory. Still, like exquisite chocolates, a few at a time seemed the right way to enjoy these.

In keeping with the emphasis on variety, some stories were vignette-like, concerned with mood, while others told intricate little narratives. I was amazed that such a Spartan storytelling form had the capacity to surprise me. But surprise me it did, especially when the stories had clever, last-minute reversals (‘Empty Cradle’, ‘Like Another Time’, ‘Thirteen Tiles’). I found some of the shorter pieces, like ‘The Old Man’s Dog’, a bit ineffectual, but there were always great moments, powerful openings and lines that cut deeply. A few choice excerpts:

  • Her father is out there, suspended, and the conditions are terrible; the tightrope a curled, fine hair sitting across the plughole. [from ‘The Tightrope Walker’s Daughter’]
  • ‘What’s the story with this one?’ asked the tall man, of his great-grandmother’s Swedish pine side table. The camera was trained on McCullough, but he didn’t want to tell strangers. He didn’t want them to own the story. [from ‘Highland Pickers’]
  • I sat there in the dusty library, the spectre of sudden death wrapping an icy hand around the tail of my spine. [from ‘A Bag of Wool’]

Also noteworthy were ‘Nineteen’, an authentic piece about a night out with friends; ‘Spark’, an homage to Muriel Spark, which has its narrator comparing her life to that of The Driver’s Seat protagonist, Lise; and ‘Green-Eyed Snake’, a sinister piece that put me in mind of John Fowles’ The Collector.

Meyer is at her best when her poetic sensibilities take over. She’s adept at creating mood and – as is necessitated by the form – truncating whole paragraphs into single lines. This debut was impressive, and showcases an author with much promise. It also disproves a common misconception; as Captives shows, micro fiction can have just as much substance as its long-form cousins.


One thought on “Review: ‘Captives’

  1. Oh, great review Tom, and it sounds like we agreed very closely. As you say they weren’t all home-runs. And I agree that a couple of the really short ones didn’t work for me though they still had something to offer. I like your comment that your were “amazed that such a Spartan storytelling form had the capacity to surprise”. I felt the same. I was delighted in fact. But I agree too that you couldn’t read too many at a time – they “assault” you in a way – not in a negative way but just strongly, so you need to stop and take them in before launching forth.

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