Book Review – 'Where Oceans Meet and Other Stories' by Heather McQuillan

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher.

Heather McQuillan’s Where Oceans Meet and Other Stories is a stunning example of craft in the realm of contemporary flash fiction. Essentially about relationships, the collection’s reflections on how humanity relates can be summed up in this stunning line from the titular story – sometimes they cancel each other, sometimes they compound with spectacular results.

This is a group of stories about the way we relate to each other, or don’t – especially those with communication difficulties. There are stories of loss – of early death, of relationships released, of closeness that grows apart and seems imagined. In one story, McQuliian writes of the breakdown of a relationship between a parent and children:

Today he thinks he sees a glimpse of yellow in the sky, but it is gone. Just a card now and then, a belated birthday or Christmas greeting when they remember.

Stories like these are tempered, though, with stories of hope and beauty, of the times when people find what they need deep within themselves and summon the power to overcome. There are stunning moments of hope as relationships evolve through time, as in ‘The weekend shift’.

Heather is a strong writer with a well developed sense of the craft and this is evident in the construction of this book. There is a focus on the detail often missed in the rush of daily life, used to great effect to give her stories a sense of immediacy and relatability. Her use of language is exceptional and is captured perfectly in this from the story ‘Reclamation’:

This daughter of a dead, imperfect mother spreads buttons like seeds, traces mandala emptiness—her unhinged fingers grappling to shape radial balance.

This book is also an examination of relationships, using different voices – the teenage daughter and her father, couples, grandparents and grandchildren, and the voices of gods in disguise. This keeps the writing fresh, but also relatable.There is an effective sense of place, especially where settings are outdoors. This element of storytelling contributes to pulling the reader into the stories, and is a strong and beautiful nod to the author’s adopted homeland of Aoteoroa New Zealand.

McQuillan does not shy away from addressing the sociocultural issues that hang heavily on Aoteoroa New Zealand’s landscape – domestic violence, sexual assault, family breakdown, suicide. She has a sweet and sorrowful voice, with utmost respect, that brings the reality of many to vivid and heartbreaking life. She is willing to delve into connection and humanity – the vulnerabilities that make us human. ‘Misspoken’ is a particularly clever wordplay that conveys a subtle yet powerful layered message. Alsoimpressive are her deftly written stories of people with autism spectrum disorders, told with an authentic and compassionate tone.

Heather’s use of strong imagery is truly masterful, as exemplified in this magnificent excerpt:

We walked to the car, weighed down with damp towels, and bags, and a hefty silence we knew wouldn’t stay clammed up forever. A thick line was drawn where the ocean and sky could find no compromise.

Where Oceans Meet and Other Stories is a strong course in the art of exceptional flash writing. Heather McQuillan cements her place as a premier storyteller in this challenging genre, crafting pieces that stand up beautifully to subsequent readings and emotionally resonant but comforting stories of love and loss, and what we still yearn for in the deepest parts of ourselves. With its diverse voices and characters, and strong attention to place, this volume has something to appeal to any reader.

Where Oceans Meet and Other Stories is available now from Reflex Press.

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