Book Review – ‘Soul Etchings’ by Sandra Arnold

I purchased this book in ebook format from the publisher.

Sandra Arnold’s Soul Etchings is a stunningly crafted volume of flash fiction that plumbs the spectrum of what it means to be human on multiple levels. Careful, spare prose lets the moment shine, and leaves the reader with much to consider about the nature of humans, and what is unsaid as we go about our secret lives.

A yearning for connection echoes through these stories. In ‘Marléne’, a lonely man brings home a mannequin to fill a void in his life, while in ‘Stoicism’ a young woman wrestles with the distance between herself and her grieving father. 

A lot of flash fiction leans on gritty realism to stir emotion and connect with the reader, but many of Arnold’s stories instead look inward, encouraging the reader to an examination of the inner life. There is a lilting, magical beauty to the stories that flow from this introspection. In ‘River’, a troubled young boy confides in his friend and begs questions of her:

When he finished telling her all this River told him what he wanted to know about the sun and moon and stars and the navigation system of birds. She told him about the way the moon influenced tides and the way dolphins communicated and how giant turtles swam great distances to return to the place they were born to lay their eggs. When she finished they watched the night fold itself around them. They breathed in the scents of eucalyptus and pine.

This beautiful introspection also emerges in the title story, told in a beautiful contemporary voice:

I slid off Ginger’s back and whispered in his ear that no one would believe us. But when I’m like really old, I’ll leave the world with this night’s memory etched on my soul.

Sandra’s stories utilise a number of settings, including her adopted homeland of New Zealand, to full effect. The theme of ‘place’ and how it shapes our realities is persistent here, and especially strong in ‘Bridging the gap’, the titular ‘Soul etchings’, and ‘The Glory Tree’. The descriptions and cultural nods bring these places and their contexts to vibrant life. Her selection of sensory detail is also exceptional; in ‘Bridging the gap’ she uses scent to perfection to link two different worlds in a way that highlights their difference; ‘Barbie Girl’ leans heavily on visuals to create a haunting dissonance; ‘The woman with a thousand faces’ uses the nuance of sound to build beautifully to a climax. It’s these diverse and lush details, served in just the right doses, that make Arnold’s stories sparkle while still maintaining forward momentum.

This is a comprehensive gathering of voices and characters with broad appeal. Sandra Arnold has brought together discordant families, fractured relationships, the wild beauty of the world around us, and the depth and complexity of our vast inner universes to weave a basket of narratives to capture the moments that matter, the ones that breathe magic.

Soul Etchings is available now from Retreat West Books.

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