Tender Cuts by Jayne Martin

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Jayne Martin’s collection of micro fiction, published by Vine Leaves Press, is billed as ‘tiny tales for the time challenged.’ It features thirty-eight stories, none of them longer than 300 words, some of them much shorter. Martin began her writing career as a TV screenwriter. She’s been publishing flash fiction for about ten years and was a 2017 Pushcart nominee and a 2018 Best Small Fictions nominee. Tender Cuts is illustrated with line drawings by Janice Whitby and Indigo Roth. It is a very thoughtfully produced, good-looking book: it would make a lovely Christmas present.

Tender Cuts offers miniature slices of Americana, from the sleazy, glitter-daubed poverty of beauty queens to disappointing prom nights and surreal romance in laundromats. If you read the whole thing through in one sitting it takes on a freak-show aspect like watching Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends mixed with Twin Peaks on fast-forward. So I suggest you don’t do that. Give the stories the air they need to breathe and savour them one at a time.

There’s a lot of pathos to this collection, and Martin tackles some serious issues. There are broken hearts, domestic violence, grief, loneliness, murder and suicide and a desperate family who have nothing left but each other, separated as they cross the American border.  There is the chilling, fifty-word ‘The New Kid,’ who ‘had only intended to show them the gun,’ or ‘Making the Cut,’ where the mother of a disillusioned beauty queen ‘blew a smoke ring into the air that hovered above Julie-Sue’s head like a crown.’

But there is also plenty of humour in these dark situations, and some of the stories are beguilingly odd. There are the downtrodden housewives at the laundromat who compete for the attentions of a lobster. ‘Every so often a sound like that of a bow across the strings of a violin would emit from him and although the women weren’t clear about its meaning, they were charmed nonetheless.’ There’s a dead mother who continues a lifetime of nagging and criticising her daughter via Ouija board, and a woman who prefers dancing with her coat stand to spending time with her grandchildren.

Martin’s tales offer friendship and compassion as a consolation for life’s bleakness, as well as the understanding that you are never alone: the very ordinariness of these misfortunes and miseries tell us that we’re all in it together. A bereaved woman laments that ‘the refrigerator was packed with well-meaning casseroles, as if I could eat my way out of sorrow.’ A woman’s childhood friend has chemotherapy, so she signs her bald head as they lie next to each other and talk about their school days. The characters are portrayed with an intimacy and psychological depth that creates emotional resonance despite the extreme economy of the form. Martin achieves this with precise, unfussy, language, telling details and objects that take on the symbolic weight of talismans. She has elsewhere described the art of micro fiction as like getting a ship inside a bottle. Like those bottled ships her stories have a fragile beauty and lovely weightlessness.

Tender Cuts is published by Vine Leaves Press and is available here.

Jayne Martin

Jayne Martin is a Pushcart, Best Small Fictions, Best Microfictions nominee, and a recipient of Vestal Review’s VERA award. Work in New Flash Fiction Review, Spelk, Crack the Spine, Midwestern Gothic, Barren, MoonPark Review, Blink-Ink, and Bending Genres among others. She is also the author of Suitable for Giving: A Collection of Wit with a Side of Wry, a collection of humor essays. Her TV-movie writing credits include Big Spender for Animal Planet, and A Child Too ManyCradle of Conspiracy, and Deceived by Trust for Lifetime. She lives in California, where she rides horses and drinks copious amounts of fine wines, though not at the same time.

Reviewed by Kate Tyte

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