Songs Without Music (Gumbo Press, 2016) is the third fiction collection from Tim Stevenson. He is a first prize winner of the National Flash Fiction Day Micro Competition, has had his fiction published widely in magazines, anthologies, and online, and is judging this year’s Bridport Flash Fiction Prize.
The collection is presented with the by-line “flash-fictions and curiosities”, which is an accurate and all-encompassing description for Songs Without Music; we have flash, haiku, centipieces, and other forms possibly eluding definition. Not only are there different forms of fiction but different genres too, making for a collection that invigorates the imagination and provides a varied, thought-provoking reading experience.
The centipieces are of particular interest. A centipiece, as defined by Stevenson, Ash Chantler (an editor of Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine) and Kevlin Henney (another widely published, anthologised, and prize-winning author), is “a short (flash) fiction story of exactly 100 characters in length.” This includes spaces and punctuation but not the story’s title. Despite this extreme restriction, Stevenson still conjures an entire world and a complete story using this form, and those who admire flash for its compressive elements will fall in love with these pieces and find the desire to try writing their own. ‘The Lepidopterist’s Lament’, which first appeared as a part of The List Magazine’s article on National Flash-Fiction Day 2015, and ‘Becoming’ are two of the strongest of these centipieces; to summarise what makes both of these pieces so excellent would require more characters than that used to compose them, but both illuminate larger stories that tell us something about the characters involved.
Some of the fiction in Songs Without Music are firmly rooted in reality, playing with every day scenarios. ‘Being Seen To Do The Right Thing’, one of my favourites from the collection, is the story of Frances, an ordinary young woman who’s the first to admit that she is “mousey, timid, single, and boring.” Frances is overlooked and ignored so frequently in her everyday life that she almost fades into the background of her own story; when she volunteers to help Mrs Baylock, who’s hurt her hip, Frances experiences the kindness of strangers who give up their seat on the bus, wish her well, and go out of the way to help her so she doesn’t drop the red-hot casserole dish she’s carrying. However, the journey home is a different matter, with Frances being knocked into, no-one offering her their seat or acknowledging her existence. I’m confident most of us have experienced this; we know what it’s like to be Frances, so who’s to blame her when she decides she likes the preferential treatment she received earlier on in the day? Armed with an empty dish and oven gloves, Frances soaks up acts of kindness wherever she goes, enjoying how she has emerged from the background of life to the foreground. Though this is Frances’ story, Stevenson makes us wonder if this story is really about everyone but, and how our perceptions of others change based on what we believe is going on; are we more inclined to help someone if it looks like they need help, to even acknowledge the existence of another only if they’re being seen to be kind? Do we take notice or disregard individuals based on our snap judgements? Must the Frances of the world resort to these measures to be noticed, to experience the kindness of others?
‘The Vegetarian’ begins as a seemingly normal story about a young woman called Fay who hasn’t been seen for a while and, when Keith and Duncan check to see if she is okay, she doesn’t answer, appearing not to be home. The story takes a turn to the peculiar towards its conclusion when Keith takes a crowbar and opens the door. What they discover is a room smothered with mould and Duncan, who finds a mushroom, plucks it from the floor and consumes it. When Keith asks what Duncan is doing, he explains how he and Fay had a conversation about her becoming a vegetarian and how he made a jibe about humans “being made of meat”; it seems Fay has taken her transition to vegetarianism seriously, resulting in tasty consequences.
This review can only begin to touch the surface of what Songs Without Music has to offer. This collection truly sings; a performance you’ll definitely want tickets to.