Novelette review – The Impossibility of Wings by Donna K. Greenwood

Homemade Weather book coverThe final novelette of Homemade Weather: An Anthology of Novelettes in Flash from Retreat West Books is an emotionally-charged story of a girl picking her way through a childhood where parents may present the biggest dangers. The Impossibility of Wings by Donna K. Greenwood was awarded third place in Retreat West’s novelette-in-flash contest, judged by Damhnait Monaghan.

Greenwood paints scenes that layer the unreal over the real, so that we almost need to hold them up to the light to recognise the truths bleeding through. Opening with ‘In the Night They Will Come For Me’, our protagonist talks of the hyenas that gobbled her mother’s eyes, and of how “On Mum’s good days, we watched her fly above the earth”, while on bad days “she would lie at the bottom of the ocean (…) she let us drown a thousand times.”

In ‘Lost Jesus’, we learn that “Dad wants her to be normal” and that “Dad drinks a lot”, a fact that the protagonist blames initially on herself and her sisters. Humour jolts through this story, but panic whispers at the edges of the family’s laughter.

Comedy lifts passages of fear: that the wardrobe the girls take refuge in is known as the War Dog, “because Nessy couldn’t say wardrobe when we first discovered the sanctity of its walls.”

A playfulness with form also delivers otherwise potentially bleak tales with a weft of whimsy. ‘How to Make a Cup of Tea at 3am In The Morning’ is a stunning example of this, with Ingredients including “Sugar, the last hardened clumps at the bottom of the bag are best” and Method including “2. Wake in the midst of a dream (nightmares are best)”, “4. Check all siblings are still sleeping”, “12. Ring your grandma. Tell her your mother has run away.”

I urge you to read the whole hermit crab flash for the full impact of this particular compact masterpiece.

Greenwood has a magic touch when it comes to these topics, lacing sorrows with beauty and darkness with innocence that elevates her novelette to a poignant and entrancing read. In the world she crafts, mental illness is elemental, with the suffocating sting of salt-water and the “mad glare of the moon.” A drunk father may be a bear, even as “its great paws scoop” you out of bed to go and watch fireworks. A mother’s eyes are “two dark holes” and the line between love and hate is perilously sheer.

In “Things I Can’t Pack Into My Suitcase” we’re treated to another hermit crab flash, in which love and fear is spelled out through a litany of “sleepy giggles”, “belly laughs” and “unnameable bangs and slaps.” It’s a list that builds to a heart-fracturing crescendo that explains the presence of the suitcase and the desire to leave, stronger than the need to stay.

In the title flash, ‘The Impossibility Of Wings’, the experience of a farewell is only brought into focus in retrospect, when love finally unfolds and shows us its wings. It’s a whisper to the child hiding in the wardrobe and making tea at 3am that through all the darkness, tenderness curls, seeking the strength and courage to emerge.

An intense and deeply moving portrayal of a child growing up mired in both parents’ mental frailties.

Read my review of Homemade Weather by Tom O’Brien and my review of What The Fox Brings In Its Jaw by Ian O’Brien, the first and second award-winning novelettes in Retreat West’s anthology.

Homemade Weather: An Anthology of Novelettes in Flash is published by Retreat West and is available to buy from www.retreatwest.co.uk/homemade-weather.

This book was given to me in exchange for a fair review.

What are you reading? I’d love to know. I’m always happy to receive reviews of books, art, theatre and film. To submit or suggest a book review, please send an email to judydarley (at) iCloud.com.

Novelette review – What The Fox Brings In Its Jaw by Ian O’Brien

Homemade Weather book coverThe second novelette of Homemade Weather: An Anthology of Novelettes in Flash from Retreat West Books draws you into the life of a man who has gone awry. What The Fox Brings In Its Jaw by Ian O’Brien was awarded second place in Retreat West’s novelette-in-flash contest, judged by Damhnait Monaghan.

It begins with a scene of such contemplative observation that it would be easy to miss the significance of the word craving: “Another craving has brought him to the window and he is standing there with a cigarette when he sees it.”

The ‘it’ is a fox passing by with something in its jaws. This vivid visual serves as a metaphor for the entire novelette, where our protagonist drifts from being the fox to, more naturally it seems, being the helpless creature between the predator’s teeth.

None of the characters are named in this exquisitely melancholic novelette, hinting that in one unthinking moment we could find ourselves in such an existence. Snow, blood on snow, and leafless trees, are recurring images, emphasising the perilous wilderness at the edges of our everyday lives. At times, reading this, I felt physically cold.

Continue reading

Novelette review – Homemade Weather by Tom O’Brien

Homemade Weather book coverThe title novelette of this anthology from Retreat West Books, Homemade Weather by Tom O’Brien was the winning entry in the publisher’s new novelette-in-flash contest, judged by Damhnait Monaghan, and deserves its star position whole-heartedly.

The author immerses us in his protagonist’s world, keeping the focus tight and intimate. Celia Finn lives within view of a mountain that frames her childhood. Rather than bickering like other families in the area, her parents have periods of tense unspoken exchanges that Celia imagines as she sits on the stairs within earshot of what’s unsaid.

Celia is a faithful believer in rituals, and the novelette opens with her writing her name three times, an act that serves both to introduce her to us and to offer a sense of protection as her dog Ollie whistles his last breaths “to the mountain across the valley, with its band of shadowed woods.”

There’s a striking control to O’Brien’s writing – each word chosen with care and each statement neatly balanced to underplay emotions in a way that ensures they seep under our skin. Each sensation felt by Celia is delivered to us with considered care. At the doctor’s, “I felt his peppermint breath turn from me when he sent a look to my mother”, while her parents fail to argue out loud, she wants ‘to go back to my room, to close the door and hear only clean quiet.”

Continue reading