Characters come alive on the pages of Jayne Martin’s thoughtful flash fiction collection, Tender Cuts. Many of the narrators are nameless, but they are the mothers, daughters, sisters, best friends, prom dates, wives, and girlfriends whom we know. Meet Anna who “quietly slipped out while he was still sleeping.” And Margot, who “tossed [her husband] off the icy Austrian peak.” There’s Carmen, the ballet understudy who can’t contain her jealousy. Then there’s Julie-Sue. She has golden hair and wears a corset that pinches as “Mama pushes her onto the stage” to perform the can-can at the Little Miss Soybean competition. Julie-Sue is the central character in four of Martin’s stories. It is not at all surprising to learn that Martin was a writer of television screenplays. Her genius is in her ability to paint a fully-formed character in a few sentences. Beyond simply introducing each character, she sets up a meet-cute (in television: a charming first encounter that leads to a relationship) between character and reader. Martin knows the initial connection must be between these two. At once, the reader is invested and wants to be a part of the fictitious journey, and Martin does not disappoint.
As mothers, many of us start a task only to be interrupted by another, more important task. For that reason, books like Tender Cuts are perfect if you find yourself with small blocks of time in which to read. Even if you only have time to read one page at a time, you won’t feel like you’re dropping something in the middle. For those readers new to flash, Martin’s book is a wonderful introduction. One of the hallmarks of the relatively new genre is the hinting at a larger story, but Martin does her own thing here and encapsulates stories that feel whole on a single page. Also unique are the line drawings that accompany each story. They are simple, yet profound, for example: the single ballet slipper or the heart-shaped noose.
Introducing readers to unusually micro stories, short even by flash fiction standards (generally about 1,000 words), Martin adeptly uses metaphor to bring new life to the familiar. For example, the slightly confusing, but definitely compelling title, “I Married A 1985 Buick LeSabre,” creates a curious reader. The car metaphor winds its way through what would otherwise be a well-known relationship trope. Martin succeeds in keeping the reader engaged with phrases like, “under the hood his engine still hummed,” and “connectors in his brain weren’t sparking.” But she never veers so far from reality as to lose her reader. Similarly, in “A Lobster Walks Into A Laundromat,” Martin uses metaphor to imbue a short piece with much mystery. It becomes abundantly clear that Martin can make a compelling character out of anyone, or, in this case, anything, even a lobster “dragging a small cart” to the laundromat on “Mondays, nine a.m. sharp.”
The narrator of “First Impressions” doesn’t have a name, but when she thinks, “I had worn the wrong shoes,” she is suddenly so relatable, she doesn’t need a name; she could be any of the people reading the story. Martin captures moments readers can relate to and sympathize, if not empathize, with. And she does this with an incredible economy of words. While Martin does an enviable job of depicting her characters with words alone, the drawings add another dimension to the stories. I imagine the drawings that accompany each story as a tattoo one of the characters in the corresponding piece might have chosen for their fictitious bodies.
At first, I struggled to understand the connection between the collection of short pieces and the blurb on the cover identifying Martin as “a badass writer,” but having read through the collection a number of times, I now understand. What’s more badass than telling the truth? Martin is not interested in tying her stories up into neat little packages for her reader. Though some end well—”I’ve finally done something right,” the exasperated mother at the end of “Morning Glory” exclaims—many of the stories end ominously or downright poorly, as they do in real life. There’s something exhilarating in the knowledge that every story is not going to have a happy ending.
Martin asks the reader to do some of the work, as most good writers do. She asks us to start thinking deeply from the very beginning. Consider the title: a tender cut is a cut nonetheless. Martin asks her audience to ponder how painful experiences might also be thought of as soft, or aimed at protecting someone. From the first story to the last, readers are left to wonder, What place does intention have in hurtful situations? A question that’s important for everyone to ask, but maybe especially compelling for mothers.
Many of the tales in Tender Cuts focus on children in complicated situations. Whether you identify with the young boy eagerly awaiting the birth of his little sister, only to be disappointed, or the twin whose young sibling never wakes up one morning, the stories told from a child’s point of view will make you want to hug your own children or the children you have in your life. Martin is not afraid to illuminate the dark side of motherhood. There’s the mother who is forced to turn to prostitution to feed her children, and the bitter grandmother who laments the life she almost had before becoming a mother. If there are still taboo topics, then these are surely some of them. The fact Martin faces difficulties head-on by writing in compact, captivating prose allows for her insightful storytelling to further humanize tragic subjects while dually strengthening the collection and giving readers an opportunity to feel less alone.
If there is a main character in Tender Cuts, it’s Julie-Sue, not just because she appears in more than one piece. But because of the way she jumps off the page in her gold lamé dress daydreaming about drawing the handsome neighbor boy. It was smart of Martin to have a story progress through the book; it creates a narrative thread many readers will appreciate. Julie-Sue and her Salem-smoking Mama materialize four times in the collection, but Julie-Sue could stand in for the nameless narrator of “Morning Glory,” whose “body sags under a cloak of exhaustion” as she struggles to provide for her child. Or the narrator of “This Is How You Leave Me” pressing matches against her skin. It’s easy to imagine her in both these situations.
When we catch up with Julie-Sue in “Prime Cuts,” she’s a teenager on the pageant circuit getting groped by the mayor. She lights up a cigarette, the same brand her mother smokes, and the reader inhales, wondering if Julie-Sue is destined to follow in her mother’s footsteps. We meet her one last time in “Final Cut.” Written in the first person, unlike the other stories featuring Julie-Sue, the final story becomes both intimate and immediate for the reader; a clever way for Martin to end the collection.
Each story in Tender Cuts is a snapshot that will stay with you through the day while you’re doing other things. While you’re out shopping you might wonder if the woman in front of you in line is Anna. You might start making up names for people who seem interesting; you might start thinking about their stories. For sure, Julie-Sue will stay with you long after you’ve closed the book. This cutting-edge collection is for the reader who wants to reach beyond quaint and well-meaning stories about relationships and is willing to be haunted for a little while after by memorable characters.