The novella-in-flash is a difficult genre to master, with the double pressure of telling a convincing story whilst achieving an individual flash fiction story for each chapter. With every word counted and counting, it doesn’t leave much room for hesitation or rambling and one can’t afford the luxury of a couple of weaker chapters as might be possible with a novel. In order for the form to work, both story and style have to be mastered, which is definitely the case here.
Stephanie Hutton tells the poignant story of three sisters growing up in an abusive household in the 1980s. They cling together against their violent father and dismissive mother. As they grow up, in the constant fear of repetitive beatings, they somehow manage to create childhood memories.
“‘Que sera sera’, I sang, and both my sisters joined in loudly, as there were two more hours before father was due home.”
There is bittersweet laughter in the face of adversity, there is the resilience of childhood coming from the comfort they find in each other’s company: “Three sardines hiding from a predator in the silence of the sea.”
The book describes the damage done to the children with powerful strokes. If they are physically able to get over the beatings, they are, however, unable to grow up peacefully, the abuse having broken them to the irreparable. Although their father is the one described as the big bad wolf – with the title and prologue borrowing from the three piglets story – he’s not the only one responsible for the sisters’ stigma. Their mother, forever passive, is also to blame: “We were used to her leaving us to it these days, lying in her bed after father left for work or chain-smoking in the backyard, staring at passing clouds that headed to places she’d never visit.”
The story is told by Bella, the middle child. Bella’s rendition of the three sisters’ lives spans three decades. Her depiction of events is always mild, as if her father’s anger has sucked up any possibility for her to ever manifest a strong emotion, even in her reminiscing about her parents. If her opinions on the matter are seldom, their wrongdoings speak for themselves.
As for her sisters, every anecdote in which they are present is told with the deep tenderness that only the closest of bonds allows.
As they grow older and more independent from each other, as they face adulthood and its pitfalls, their wounds seem to reopen and their lives crumble – as if the resilience of childhood had been replaced by weakness, an impossibility to bear the memories anymore. It seems that the character traits they drew their strength from as children eventually become the instruments of their loss in their later years.
Agnes, the older child, whose rationalism slowly turns into OCD, isolates herself further from a world she fears, preferring facts to people. The younger child Chloe, whose positivity and bubbliness enabled her to bear years of abuse, becomes incapable of toning down her drinking and promiscuity. As for Bella, the “peace maker”, she has been wearing a mask so long that she has lost her identity:
“My brow felt smooth. Of course, I had forgotten to take of my mask, had slept in it. I pressed my ears to find the edge of the mask to unpeel. Then along my hairline. Nothing. I scratched my nails at the back of my neck, like trying to find the end of a sticky tape. There was no panic; the mask did its job. If anything, I drifted into numbness. I dug at my skin again and again with rough nails.”
Stephanie Hutton’s style is poignant without ever being sappy. Her characters are convincing and deep, and the story and message it conveys powerful.
Beautiful. A must-read.
Three Sisters of Stone is published by Ellipsis Zine and is available here.
Stephanie Hutton is a writer and clinical psychologist in the UK. She has been shortlisted for the Bristol Short Story Prize, Bath Novella-in-Flash Award and Bridport Prize. Publications include Gravel, Mechanics Institute Review and Atticus Review. Her novella Three Sisters of Stone is published with Ellipsis Zine.
Stephanie is on Twitter here.
Reviewed by Barbara Fieschi-Jones
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