Book Review – ‘Ghosts Are Just Strangers Who Know How To Knock’ by Hillary Leftwich

I requested a review copy of this book from the publisher.

Hillary Leftwich’s flash fiction collection ‘Ghosts Are Just Strangers Who Know How To Knock’ is an arresting read from the very beginning. She is a true master of the form, leading the reader through a world populated by ghosts, both literal and figurative, that ask as many questions as they answer.

This is a collection of stories about what it is to feel, to be human, in a world not always gentle. Leftwich comments on intimacy between strangers, and how people reach out to each other to feel less alone, even though the connection can be tenuous at best. She explores the personification of objects in the quest for relationship, the way human characteristics are projected onto the inanimate as we struggle to find someone who understands, who sees us as we are, and who feels our pain.

Hillary dives deep into heartbreak; its impact on how we see ourselves in the world, and how loss changes us irrevocably. In ‘You Can Always Come Back’, the narrator laments the death of a childhood friend, and reflects on how the knowledge of his passing causes her to re-examine the choices she’s made, and the current of regret that washes over her as she reflects on what might have been. In ‘Clean’, the narrator recounts the stories told to her by a work colleague, entwining them with moments from her own past, culminating in a moment of sharp reflection on how grief and despair change how people see and interact with each other. Leftwich deftly weaves the magical with the real, offering the reader moments of relief against the intensity of her storytelling.

Flash fiction can be a challenge to write but Hillary Leftwich rises to the occasion. She is a master of the form and her skill is evident in her tight and fearless writing. Her layer building in ‘Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition’ slowly builds tension, with a single detail echoing in the red lipstick worn by the women. There is more echo in ‘One Good Dress’, in which the colour blue and the titular dress make repeated appearances, each in a different context. Hillary uses a variety of characters and voice to keep the reader engaged and the stories fresh. Some are instantly relatable; others make the reader recoil, but the purpose of this is to encourage reflection on reaction. This subtle metathinking adds incredible depth to the reading experience.

Leftwich uses a vast spectrum of different forms, and students of flash fiction will recognise them immediately. From playing with different arrangements as in ‘Dead Boys’, she also veers into the poetic, instructional, mosaic flash, and hermit crab forms, among others. The collection as a whole is a wonderful demonstration of how different and invigorating flash fiction can be. There is just enough sensory detail to bring scenes to vivid life: 

The skirts and tunics flap like pinned birds in the breeze. He smells aging fires and hears young laughter.

And from another story:

In another moment, we could have been sitting at a wooden picnic table in a park, swatting summer flies, watching dogs squirm in wet grass, and kids piss in their red cotton shorts.

There is also rich simile and metaphor, and Hillary seizes on the unexpected and unusual, avoiding the obvious in favour of more striking comparisons: 

I sort through them like tangled Christmas ornaments, looking for you.

The stories vary in length from a few sentences to a few pages, but each one strikes a balance between arriving late and leaving early – starting and finishing on just the right note to give the story resonance, and have it stay with the reader. This ending from ‘Me And My Boy’ is a perfect exemplar:

Me and boy, we don’t say a word.

There is just enough here to make the rest of the story hum, without feeding the reader an obvious conclusion or trying too hard to neaten things up.

Ghosts Are Just Strangers Who Know How To Knock is a masterclass in short form writing. Sometimes shocking, sometimes heartbreaking, it collects moments of beauty and pain in a testament to the human desire for love, acceptance, and understanding. This book is both a worthy addition to the shelves of fans of flash fiction, and a brilliant introduction for those new to the form. With its extensive range and diverse cast, there is something in this book for everyone.

Ghosts Are Just Strangers Who Know How To Knock is available from Civil Coping Mechanisms.

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