BOOK REVIEW: All That Is Between Us by KM Elkes

Irving Howe once said of flash-fiction, or the short-short story as it’s otherwise known:

‘Everything depends on intensity, one sweeping blow of perception. In the short short the writer gets no second chance. Either he strikes through at once or he’s lost.’

All That Is Between Us’ is a collection of flash-fiction that strikes through. This debut by K.M Elkes crackles with all the complexities of human relationships, narrative blazes, if you like, that may be tiny in size but vast on matters of the heart. Stories crafted with an emotional wisdom that scythes. Birth and attachment, parenting, love and loss, regrets and nostalgias underpin these diverse tales with their strong narrative push. Psychologies of relationships are drawn out in vivid technicolour and Elkes courts his readers with emotional balance.

The range of these forty stories runs from the domestic to the oblique, disparate moments that accumulate bright as silver bolts and most carrying enough stun to make the heart ache. A man meets his birth mother in a café for the first time. An estranged father takes his son to the zoo without his mother’s consent. Another father eats an apple tree. An origami addict lets paper get the better of his relationship. A sick woman chooses to die amongst her beloved rose beds.

Many of these stories speak the language of manual labour, of the domestic, of making do, the words of hard knocks. Rural landscapes are never far from earthily drawn settings with ripe loaded fruit trees and riverbanks, a sugary village bakery, a red call box.

A personal favourite is ‘Still Warm’ which brings us a boy emotionally neglected due to his mother’s ill health. Loss resonates as his father shaves at the sink removing stubble that used to feel ‘alive and mysterious, like radio static’ on his cheek in the days when his father still used to kiss him. Whiskers symbolise the white noise of love, the lip graze he depends on to feel loved. Narrative artfully rotates around the school packed lunch his mother prepares each day, a sausage meat sandwich ‘fried the colour of night’ lunch prepared with all ‘the weight of a human heart’, but even so, the boy disposes of it en route to school. Family dynamics emerge keenly through that sandwich alone and achieved within three hundred words.

The strongest pieces in this collection give spaces where ideas and images are glimpsed at but remain ambiguous, inviting the reader’s interpretation, giving rise to conjecture. In the opening story ‘Could Have Would Have Should Have’, a man who has had an affair supposes on different outcomes in life, a list heavy with atonement; a new born baby, a wife, a daughter, an enduring marriage, a trip to a water park, a pint with his daughter’s friend’s dad. Readers can’t know what is the protagonist’s fact or fiction. We speculate on a dot to dot of events and conclude in a layby waiting on a lover’s call, a voice on the radio informing of ‘…snow, coming slowly from the east.’ Elkes’s wily use of ambiguity invites his readers to linger awhile in that landscape of unknowing.

Many flash fiction collections lack a unifying theme, an overarching scaffold to make the stories feel like a collection of words which really should be hanging out together. Not so, here. Structurally, the book is organised in to a triptych of stories starting with ‘Parents and Children’, ‘Couples and Lover’ and concluding with ‘Friends and Strangers.’ This arrangement makes sense. It feels organic, carefully mirroring the life cycle of human relationships which takes us from infancy through childhood, to adolescence and beyond. Not only does this structure function to stagger the emotional gravity of each story but each section thrums with interpersonal conflicts, those recurring themes of trust vs mistrust, intimacy vs isolation and, how ultimately, the success of any relationship depends upon mastering these.

Readers seek to find connective themes in collections, often unconsciously emerging ones, but it is incontestable that hands emerge, here. A sister dips her finger in a pan of stew for her siblings to taste in ‘The Knock of the Broom’, ‘…as though we were lambs suckling.’  ‘Send Me Down’ features the death of a scaffolder in a tragic fall where his colleagues ‘pressed that battered harmonica into his hand, …sent him on his way down that long, empty elevator shaft.’ In ‘Extremities’, Bobby loses one of his hands in a logging accident, its whereabouts unknown, ‘…there was nothing on the end of his arm.’ Empathy is given up for the mislaid hand that lies somewhere ‘out in those woods, fingers curled, grasping at nothing.’ In  ‘The Noise Was Blades’ a woman ungloves hands that play ‘a faint, bitter jostle of sharps and flats’ Musicality is at work here in the personification of ecstasy. Melodic and lyrical, this tale is a triumph of sound and immediacy that builds and builds, the double edged blade being that euphoria can kill. Readers will find hands that nurture, hands that cut, hands that are lost, hands of course, being the writer’s tools, the labourer’s livelihood.

Elkes’s writing is spare with imagery that surprises. Spare is not to imply any skimping on metaphoric juice, rather more that he employs metaphoric restraint. The baby’s hands in ‘Could Have, Would Have, Should Have’ grip ‘…like tiny, soft-shelled crabs.’  A lover in ‘Fanciful Visions of Death’s Sweet Embrace’ fears death in all its guises and takes on the characteristics of her imagined deaths in a fantastical way. She imagines dying in a cryotherapy chamber, her partner noting: ‘Her hair became brittle as iced grass and she smelled of something hard, like nail polish. She clicked and juddered when she walked, so she stopped walking.’  In ‘A Secret Weight’ a married man reminisces on how fast his life has passed, how ‘time bowed like the curve of the Earth…’ and the lover he jilted the night before his wedding, ‘…her taste, like a sharp apple, freshly bitten.’ Subtly placed metaphors function as slant cues to a bigger picture. It is this sort of precise sensory compression that gives Elkes’s stories their command.

A skilfully crafted collection which explores human relationships with authenticity and tenderness. It comes highly recommended.

All That Is Between Us is published by Ad Hoc Fiction and is available here.

KM Elkes

K.M. Elkes is an author, editor and journalist based in the West Country, UK. He is the author of the flash fiction collection All That Is Between Us (see below) and his short fiction has won, or been placed, in a number of international writing competitions, including the Manchester Fiction Prize; Fish Publishing Prize, the Bridport Prize, Aesthetica Creative Writing Award and the Bath Short Story Award.

His work has appeared in more than 30 literary anthologies and journals, including The Lonely Crowd, Unthology, Mechanic’s Institute Review, Short Fiction Journal and Structo.

He is a short story tutor for Comma Press and his fiction has also been used on schools and college curricula in the USA and Hong Kong . In 2019, he was the recipient of an award from Arts Council England.

As a writer from a rural working class background, his work often reflects marginalised voices and liminal places. He is currently working on a novel and a short story collection.

Reviewed by Rachael Smart

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