Alone and alive

Leah Holbrook Sackett, Catawampus in Sweetgum County (Adelaide Books, 2022)


‘Sweetgum County is a place where death lingers on the doorstep of the soul’ declares the author before we have even reached the Acknowledgements. A faint-hearted reader might turn no further.

Death is certainly ubiquitous in Leah Holbrook Sackett’s literary landscape. But her short stories (many of which first appeared in one of an impressive array of literary journals) are often more surreptitious than sinister.

The collection uses its distinctively bland setting to paint a vivid picture of small-town midwest USA. Marriage, religion, school… characters’ concerns are mostly everyday in this place of ‘suburban sprawl with limited options’, as one character, newly arrived from Kansas City, puts it.

Nostalgia and anonymity run through most of the stories. Yet Holbrook Sackett’s prose is easygoing and intimate. Her observant descriptions are full of wit and piercing little asides that masquerade under a cloak of neutrality.

Solitude is also a common theme in the collection. Although Sweetgum County appears a tight community, many of its residents are desperately lonely. In ‘Spooning’, Nancy, alone after her husband of 35 years has absconded with a younger woman, replaces physical intimacy with ice cream. ‘Let Your Uglies Take Root’ uses Kafka, Boo Radley and Nirvana to highlight the isolating effects of bullying. In ‘Most Marriages Performed’, solitude is more ambiguous: ‘Moira and David had a renewal of their wedding night… blissfully alone in their union’.

In Sweetgum County, disappointment goes hand in hand with loneliness. ‘A Spot Not Blue’, first published in Issue 1 of Briefly Zine, stages the awkward meeting of a swimming pool and a boy, ‘as he realized the water was just clear, water without color’. Meanwhile, in ‘The Rome Club’, six acquaintances partake in an old tradition, whereby ‘the last man of Sweetgum County standing wins’. Even this ultimatum does not lead to foul play. And the winner sobs rather than celebrates upon discovering his lonely victory.

On occasion, the author forays into cultural clashes. An illiberal weddings policy is ‘a small threat in an otherwise accepting culture’, according to the narrator of ‘Most Marriages Performed’. Yet backwards traditions sometimes clash with more forward-looking mores, notably in ‘The Ron Jeremy of Klingons’ where a Trekkie must leave Sweetgum County to achieve her sexual liberation. It is telling that, in the end, she isn’t tempted to stay in her new fantasy world, concluding her adventure with matter-of-fact resolution: ‘It was time I headed back home to Sweetgum County’.

Sweetgum County is both a magnet and a vacuum. Things are happening; things that should be paid more attention. As the narrator muses in ‘Going to the Chapel’, ‘It’s one of those moments that doesn’t get captured, but it should. It is the apex of video posts on Facebook, very likely to go viral. But there was no one to capture the event.’ Catawampus in Sweetgum County captures an array of events, both ordinary and extraordinary. The reader too will be pulled back for more.


Leah Holbrook Sackett, Catawampus in Sweetgum County (Adelaide Books, 2022). Available here: https://adelaidebooks.org/products/catawampus-in-sweetgum-county-short-stories

Myth and micro fiction

Michelle Christophorou, Kipris (AdHoc Fiction, 2021)


Kipris is an individual’s journey from Cyprus to Liverpool mapped onto a nation’s path from foreign occupation to independence. The result is a moving and engaging novella, which brings to life the political and personal impacts of transformative historical events.

The plot focuses on Alexandros, an entrepreneurial Cypriot boy born into the British Crown Colony, who yearns to fight against the injustices of his colonial rulers. Alexandros grows up through a series of micro stories, vivid snapshots that chronicle the struggles and oppression of British Cyprus. As the injustices accumulate and his childhood innocence unravels, Alexandros’s understanding of his country’s fate is consolidated and his political views harden.

Christophorou’s prose is lyrical and energetic, compelling the reader to hurry through the pages. Her descriptions of Cyprus are sumptuous and place the reader directly into the orange groves and musky earth she describes. Yet the micro form also invites slow reading and re-reading to fill the gaps between words. Like the sea, her stories roll in and out reliably – but there is always a sense that a big wave is coming to catch you unaware.

As the woman stands and imagines the pull of the currents claiming her, a figure rises from the foamy surf.

‘Bedtime Story’

‘Bedtime Story’ is a highlight, richly mythical and highly evocative. It is the story of a woman’s self-sacrifice for her child, a divine interaction that infuses Alexandros’s tale with mythical status. This encounter with Kipris at Aphrodite’s Rock is aptly illustrated by Janice Leagra’s stunning cover design.

Alexandros is not, however, ‘mysteriously handcuffed to history’ in the same way as Saleem Sinai in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight Children. Indeed, Christophorou brilliantly subverts the reader’s expectations, denying Alexandros the heroic denouement his name anticipates. His eventual exile in ‘Goodbye Is Not Farewell’ is a tenderly human conclusion to a novella that expertly intertwines myth and history.

The human touch is also at the forefront of ‘An Old Friend’, one of the novella’s more poignant moments. The story’s deceptively reassuring narration slowly gathers momentum as it builds up to the sucker punch at the end. This thoughtful, rhythmic control is where Christophorou excels.

“It’s funny” I say. “Now that I do have tales to tell there’s no one in the village to share them with.”

‘An Old Friend’

Throughout the novella, the narrative voice flip flops from third-person omniscient to the first-person narration of Alexandros. This patchwork of perspectives contributes to Christophorou’s blend of personal and public, while enriching the overall reading experience.

Gaps between (and within) stories allow the reader to indulge their imagination, while imploring them to discover more about the historical reality of Cyprus. As the action accelerates and the absences widen, it is hard not to crave more details. That is the beauty of the micro form: a whole picture is not presented all at once but as a jigsaw puzzle that must be carefully reconstructed. Kipris is a hugely enjoyable novella that the reader will piece together again and again.


Michelle Christophorou, Kipris (AdHoc Fiction, 2021). Available here.

Cycles, signs and silence

Laura Besley, 100neHundred (Arachne Press, 2021)


In her second micro collection, Laura Besley weaves together one hundred stories of one hundred words to create one neatly jumbled narrative web. Arranged into four equal sections (to represent the seasons of a year), she uses a clear framework to complicate the seeming simplicity of the cycles that underpin our lives. Under Besley’s masterful control, the seasons are simultaneously signs and silence, fundamental but inadequate.

A sense of absence haunts many of these micro narratives. The narrator draws our attention to words in the margins, to an unrecorded note, a discarded notebook and words left unspoken. Voids can appear in busy settings and absence is shown to be liberating. In ‘Empty Nest’, a woman delights in the opportunity to be (by) herself: ‘For a couple of hours, I’m not a wife, not a mother. I’m just me.’ Motherhood is a recurring theme, whether individual or collective, and Besley presents the joys and challenges of being (or not being) a mother in a sensitive and balanced way.

The most poignant season is “Spring” in which Besley portrays a menagerie of missed opportunities. The section chronicles a series of countdowns and failed cycles that culminate, fittingly, in a warning from Mother Earth: ‘I tried to warn them, and/ they grumbled about the clouds of ash which/ grounded their planes…’ (‘Early Warning’). In this story, Besley makes use of poetic shape to contrast the signs available with human inaction. After reading the chilling final lines, the reader feels obliged to flick back through the whole section with a more attentive eye.

I only needed to post a letter, but managed to make the errand last all morning

‘Invisible’

An important aspect of 100neHundred‘s composition is the combination of past, present and future. Futuristic scenes of robots taking over homes share the stage with blasts from the past (Blockbuster makes an appearance in ‘Five Digit Pin’). These conflicting temporalities meet head-on in a complicated present that can’t leave the past behind despite being aware of the need to move on. In this context, Besley plays an interesting temporal game in ‘Don’t Look Ahead’ where the present-day character supports the future self. The story subverts the traditional carpe diem message by infusing it with a more subtle and responsible quality. A new (less succinct) mantra could be: don’t obsess about the future and make sure you enjoy the journey, but don’t forget that today’s decisions create tomorrow’s world.

Besley writes with sensitivity and an acute awareness of what to include in the frame and what to omit. In ‘How the camera lies’, she stages the limitations of the snapshot to remind her reader to look beyond surface appearances. Every story in 100neHundred is worthy of a re-read; the entire collection deserves many more. The careful reader will be rewarded with new connections each time: the dynamic, shifting images feed off one another to deepen meaning and trouble our superficial interpretations. Besley’s mini cycle is a huge success.


Laura Besley, 100neHundred (Arachne Press, 2021). Available here.