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Michelle Newby is contributing editor at Lone Star Literary Life, reviewer for Foreword Reviews, freelance writer, member of the National Book Critics Circle, and blogger at www.TexasBookLover.com. Her reviews appear or are forthcoming in Pleiades Magazine, Rain Taxi, World Literature Today, South85 Journal, The Review Review, Concho River Review, Monkeybicycle, Mosaic Literary Magazine, Atticus Review, and The Collagist.
See How Small
Little, Brown, Hardcover, January 20, 2015, 978-0316373807
224 pp., $25.00 (also available in paperback, e-book, and audiobook versions)
reviewed 2.22.2015 by Michelle Newby, Contributing Editor
See how small a thing it is that keeps us apart?
Zadie, Elizabeth, and Meredith are closing up the ice cream shop where they work when the men with guns appear. After, the men set the shop ablaze. “It grew hot, dark and wet like first things.” Texans will recognize this scenario immediately. Four teenage girls were raped and murdered and the shop set on fire in an Austin I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt shop in 1991. In a bit of speculative fiction that borrows from historical events, Scott Blackwood creates a cast of haunted characters: the mother of two of the girls, the firefighter who found the bodies, a regular customer of the ice cream shop, a reporter, a suspect and—reminding me a bit of The Lovely Bones—the girls themselves.
See How Small hooks you in the first paragraph with the voices of these girls, after. Blackwood creates an atmosphere that is chilling and apprehensive but subdued. In an intriguing narrative structure, his omniscient narrator moves forward and backward in time: attempting to correct tricks of memory (“There is a young man in line Kate doesn’t know . . . . Later, he’ll be described as secretive and nervous, but this won’t be right”) and maintaining a tension that is subtle but taut as piano wire.
Blackwood explores how those left behind attempt to escape stasis—arrested development—and the nature of grief when the story never ends. He puts the lie to the notion of closure. “Kate’s [Zadie and Elizabeth’s mother] heart shapes itself around a lack. A never-will-be.” Meredith’s father cannot abide the randomness. “A world in which things just happen is beyond hurt somehow, beyond redemption.” The most affecting bits of See How Small are the girls themselves, existing—where? Some metaphysical plane? Wherever they are, the girls are shaped by the memories of the living:
“I just wish I had more memories, one of our mothers says from somewhere . . . . Suddenly one of us has her pixie haircut from sophomore year. Another of us wears the round glasses that made her face look fat before she got contacts. The youngest of us feels her retainer push against the roof of her mouth . . . . I can still smell their hair after a bath. We suspect she’s doing laundry, because that’s when these thoughts often come, while matching socks. Laundry is dangerous that way.”
Small details deliver the strongest impact. The girls, lying on the floor of the ice cream shop, think, “The youngest of us, who always threw up before gym class because she was afraid of being naked, realized that this time she wouldn’t.” Can you feel her realization? The suspect waits in the getaway car and “Every time the wind picks up, a few pecans plunk loudly off the roof.” Can you hear the pings on metal, loud in the anticipatory quiet? Can you see him startle? This is why we read fiction— for the immersive sensory experience that is See How Small.
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