Review by Emily Webber
Even the luckiest people do not manage to get through life unscathed, and yet there are always moments of beauty and grace. The 38 small stories in Jayne Martin’s collection, Tender Cuts, reminds us of this certainty in life. In each of these stories, there are moments of loveliness that are also mixed with pain and sadness. Sometimes the grace is just in what we can survive and the fact that we still manage to move forward. Every story, none longer than a single page and many much shorter, is proceeded by a drawing, all featuring a heart. A heart in a lobster claw, a heart under a stiletto heel, a gun with a heart broken into two pieces, and a heart on a shirt hem. The heart is central to these stories, the pressure on our hearts when we don’t live up to our expectations, when others fail us, and how we endure it all.
The first story in the collection, “Tender Cuts,” is one of four that features Julie-Sue throughout her life. Julie-Sue’s mother, emotionally neglectful, pushes her daughter into child beauty pageants. The images of the stench of livestock, cattle being auctioned, and flies swarming contrast with the image of a little girl with golden ringlets. These two opposite images add more desperation to the reason Julie-Sue’s mother is entering her child in pageants: Mama says they need the money (13). At this moment, there’s a loss of innocence, and this is a theme other stories in the collection touch on.
Martin, in her author’s note in Mom Egg Review, describes flash fiction as meeting characters “right at the moment when they are most vulnerable.” Each of these very small stories delivers powerful moments of vulnerability. While short, they are fierce. The stories feel timeless and will likely dig up memories of your own experiences. We have all been in situations where we are vulnerable, whether from our actions or at the mercy of others, and in these characters, we will see ourselves.
An unexpected image, a beautiful, lulling description of a falling ballet slipper opens “The Understudy.”
The single ballet slipper tumbles down, down, down the side of the building, landing on the city sidewalk below with barely a sound (35).
In the next paragraph, Martin zooms up to the ledge of the building and snaps us back to reality—we see another person pushed to the edge. Martin’s use of contrasting images and taking a situation the reader may already have preconceived feelings about and making our reaction to it flip adds an intensity to these stories.
Many of the stories are of children in unstable homes and precarious situations. A young girl delights in celebrating Halloween in “All Hallows’ Eve” but not because of the usual reasons of free candy and a night of frivolity.
It was the one day when she could roam the neighborhood streets just like any other child with no notice taken of the rags draping her tiny frame; her shoes, much too large, stiff and warped by rain, the laces gone; her hair, once the color of sun, now a dirt-encrusted mass of mats and tangles (19).
“The New Kid” tackles bullying and gun violence in just three sentences but reverberates beyond the short space it takes up on the page.
Other stories are of people in dire circumstances or pushed to seek revenge. A woman spends precious moments with a best friend losing her battle with cancer, another travels around with the ashes of her dead husband, military wives must come to terms with changed men. Women try to escape cheating husbands; one brings a gun to a last meeting with her spouse, and another takes her husband’s beloved Schnauzer and runs.
The final image is of a heart broken into pieces, and yet it still maintains its shape, you still know it is a heart. It is the perfect image to represent the collection. Each tiny story in Tender Cuts is like a heart that is broken and yet still beating—containing the good and vile aspects of each of us. The last story, “Final Cut,” circles back to Julie-Sue and how the fractured lines of the heart filter down through the generations, but somehow even in the blood and heartache, there is still love and tenderness.
Tender Cuts by Jayne Martin
Vine Leaves Press, 2019, $11.99 (paper)
Emily Webber has published fiction, essays, and reviews in the Ploughshares Blog, The Writer magazine, Five Points, Split Lip Magazine, Brevity, and elsewhere. She’s the author of a chapbook of flash fiction, Macerated, from Paper Nautilus Press. You can read more at www.emilyannwebber.com and @emilyannwebber.