To avoid spoilers, read Johanna’s story on Reflex Fiction: ‘Heartwood.’
Johanna’s story was placed third in the Reflex Fiction Winter 2018 competition. The moment I read it, I understood why it was chosen as one of the winning stories. The first three sentences are short, straightforward declaratives that give us a direct understanding of setting. There is the repetition of the negative ‘aren’t,’ as well as a sense of stillness: ‘sit,’ ‘quiet moments,’ ‘little village.’ The setting is further presented, but in an increasingly definite and particular way. One of the strengths of this piece is in its evocative description, such as: ‘there are charred shadows in patches, and the black edges of the boards are lined and creviced like ancient knuckles, or lips.’ The simile at the end of this description is exact and sensory.
I’ve been fascinated for some time with the idea of there being a ‘turn’ in good storytelling, and Johanna’s story punctuates this idea for me. We are first given a sentence that raises a question: ‘I’d marked each of them with a gash of red paint.’ This is a powerful line, not only because of the violence in the words 'gash,' and 'red,' but because we are left asking why. Here, the story turns: ‘I knew exactly which one the soldier had pushed me up against, which section of bark had scratched the skin between my shoulder blades, and the place either side of the trunk where my fingernails had dug into it.’ Again, the particularity of the description makes this both real and painful.
The anger the narrator feels about the abuse she has suffered is conveyed to the reader, even though it is never explicitly presented. This contrasts cleverly with the stillness in the first few lines. It is the treatment of the trees: ‘sliced open,’ ‘stripped,’ ‘trimmed,’ ‘sanded,’ that conveys her emotions. That the timber is used to ‘clad’ the walls of her bedroom, ‘their grain like frozen waves,’ is a clever and thought provoking image. There is a feeling of reclamation here, of reordering or regaining control. The simile, ‘their grain like frozen waves,’ is another example of the particularity that works so well in this story; as is: ‘when I lie in bed in the dark and pull my fingers across their surface, they feel like skin.’ It is difficult not to feel the timber beneath your finger tips when reading this.
The structure of the story is also clever, using a one line sentence to end it: ‘In the clearing, there are saplings.’ Here we have a new start, or new beginning growing out of the aftermath of destruction.
A powerful story told with a real economy of words.
Note to self: Use exact and particular description to make the reader see, hear and feel.
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