Review by James Holden
Diane Simmons’ 101 page collection of 51 flash fiction pieces tracks a family’s response to the death of girl, Becky, in her early twenties, from stomach cancer. Read in order, the stories compile the progress of Becky’s mum, dad, brother and husband at various points over three and a half years, collectively building into an exceptionally powerful book.
Looking at this as a collection of short stories there is a dilemma that emerges here: the collection is ostensibly made up of flash fiction pieces, but it is difficult to imagine reading them in isolation. Simmons has organised the stories in a chronological order, which adds a real power to the stories as they build on each on other and creates fully rounded characters that it is hard not to have empathy for. Whilst an alphabetical index of stories is provided at the back of the book, it is hard to imagine wanting – or being able to – read them in any running order other than that laid out given the emotional heft that is achieved. For example, ‘A Long Journey’ makes perfect sense if you have read the previous story but one, ‘Searching’ (which is incidentally also one of the best pieces here), but would carry less power if read on its own divorced from the context that Simmons has created.
But considering how precisely it should be classed is perhaps a churlish complaint given the excellence of the narrative, characters and writing. The book opens after Becky has died, and whilst she is a character we never meet, we understand her as well as any of the narrators by the end. Becky ‘was clever, so talented, had been a star from the minute she was born. Things came easily to Becky – she learnt to read very young, could paint well, play the piano, the violin…’
Part of the tragedy of the book comes from the sense of a life unfulfilled – Becky has only just finished university when she receives her diagnosis and so does not get a proper chance to enter into the world of adulthood. The story that recounts her wedding is particularly harrowing : ‘all your favourite foods were arranged on the dining room table. And everyone smiled when you managed to eat a strawberry, a sliver of brie, half a macaron.’
The emotional depth comes not only from our sympathy for Becky, but mainly comes from sympathy for the struggles that the four protagonists undergo as they deal directly with her death and try to find a way to move on with their own lives. The characters undergo the archetypal rage and anger you might expect them to, but these moments are backed up by more nuanced portrayals of moments where they feel that they are coping before swiftly fall apart again.
Becky’s mother, Liz, is the most vividly portrayed, acting as the narrator or providing more narrative drive than the other characters. She also provides the greatest reaction, or judgement, to the other protagonists’ struggles. All four provide a good number of heart-wrenching moments, as they attend weddings, funerals, birthday parties – attempting to move back into the normal rhythm of life from which they have been torn.
Simmons is very talented at the flash fiction form – the shortest story here, ‘At Peace’, is just six lines long, and is as powerful as anything in the book. Most of the stories here are only two pages long. As you might expect from someone with such a track record in the flash fiction field, Simmons has a great ability to succinctly sum up a thought in a complete way that does not leave you feeling a piece should be longer. She has an uncluttered writing style that provides absolute clarity within the flash fiction form that she works within.
Finding A Way may not be an easy read, bit nor it is meant to be. Despite only spanning 100 pages, it is a weighty exploration of grief that is exceptionally moving. This is a book that frequently moved me to tears, and ultimately gave me a greater insight into the grieving process.
James Holden has had his short stories published by Silver Apples Magazine and On The Premises, and performed by Liars League. He lives in a retirement village in north London with his wife and two children, despite only being in his thirties.
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