Friday 15 May 2020

Review by Kathy Hoyle of "Scratched Enamel Heart" by Amanda Huggins

This beautiful collection from Amanda Huggins is a lyrical journey of delicate devastation. Each story is told in exquisite detail, sparking the senses so the reader really feels the ‘soft rabbit-skinned’ gloves in 'Violet Flint and the Softest Blue,' tastes the bitterness of the bourbon in 'A Brightness to It,'  and sees with startling clarity the stray dog, Hal, with his paw aloft silhouetted against the dawn sky in 'Red.'

Huggins effortlessly carries the reader from the North coast of England to the heat of India, from a farmhouse in small town USA to the bustling streets of London and yet, despite the many varied settings, the themes remain universal and instantly recognisable. Each story resonates with the reader because Huggins writes with such compelling precision about grief, hope, loss, yearning, fear and love in all its complexities.

The opening story, 'Where the Sky Starts,' has such pastoral beauty, so incongruous against the central themes of death and the cyclical drudgery of poverty. The gentle and yearning Rowe dreams of escape from the steelworks, herring fishing and the weight of responsibility.  Rowe’s final act of wilful resistance to an inevitable life, leaves the reader reeling with hope. 

'Red,' which was shortlisted for the Costa Short Story Prize, follows. It's a searing story, saved from overwhelming the reader with its brutality, by its wonderfully redemptive ending: 'Mollie hated the dark, brooding weight of the house, the trees so dense they held a part of the night’s heart within them even when the sun shone.' Mollie’s sinister new stepfather Sherman Rook threatens Mollie and her mother in the most terrible of ways. Her only friend is Hal, the stray dog she befriends. Mollie learns that sometimes we must leave behind those we love most in order to save ourselves. 

The title story, 'Scratched Enamel Heart,' is utterly mesmerising. This utterly original and compelling story tells of a refugee, Maya, who holds onto her past with her grief bound tightly into the leather plaited bracelet she wears: 'She picked up the owl with the scratched enamel heart and thought of her father. Always wise, yet unable to hide his feelings even when it was dangerous. He wore his heart on his sleeve for the world to see. The cat was her mother: green-eyed, independent and fierce, and the dolphin was her baby sister, always down at the river, swimming, diving, laughing, forgetting to come home in time for supper.' 

The collection is interspersed with some taut and sinister flash fiction pieces, such as 'Tiger' and 'Pretty,' both of which pack just as powerful a punch as the longer stories, and  'Strong not Rough,' a tiny story which demonstrates the sheer weight and power of teenage longing, in just a few lines.  

I adored these short stories; each one can be read and re-read and still you will find something new each time. Prepare for your heart to be scratched and yet, thankfully, not quite broken, with this gorgeous collection. 

About the reviewer
Kathy Hoyle is an MA graduate from the University of Leicester. Her short stories and flash fiction have appeared in a variety of literary magazines such as Virtualzine, Silver Apples, Reflex Fiction and Another North.  She was shortlisted for the Exeter Short Story Prize, the Fish Memoir Prize and the Ellipsiszine Flash Fiction Collection Prize. She is currently working on her first novel. 

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