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Book Review: Three Can Keep a Secret — Flash Fiction by Western Australian Writers

June 7, 2023

Reviewed by Aakriti Karun

Night Parrot’s Press’s third collection Three Can Keep a Secret, is a constellation of 101 flash fiction pieces in 183 pages. Edited by Laura Keenan and Linda Martin, the longest story, “The Time Machine,” is three pages long and the shortest, “Fire Bug,” is only three lines long. In such brief spaces, no word is wasted. Every sentence, and every story, feels urgent and necessary to the larger volume. Short as they are, these stories span perspectives and genres – a woman waits for a bus and thinks about an old lover, a woman eats a man alive in an encounter at a carpark, a time traveller pays Benjamin Wallace a visit, a young man mourns his friend, babies disappear, mannequins come to life, odours divide cities, planets get anxious. Although the stories are all standalone works – solicited without a predetermined theme – each piece illuminates and leads into the next, bringing recurrent themes, narrative patterns and stylistic choices to the surface.

Many stories in this collection turn delicately away from their central events towards the end. Details typically introduced in passing (like the man in “The Lucky Country” stuffing his tie into his suitcase after surviving a car crash) are the ones the stories stop at, signalling that these moments are more important than what appears to be the main plotline. In “How I met my wife,” for example, the narrator takes us through his encounter with a woman he meets at a theatre. While we assume from the title that this woman is the man’s future wife, it’s only in the last ten lines that the woman who he’ll marry appears in a chance encounter while waiting for a taxi. The plot slows into small pockets of privacy – the woman reaching towards the cab’s door handle as the man walks towards the cab – and stops there.

These pockets aren’t plot twists. They aren’t meant to sneak up on readers and startle them. The stories doen’t build towards those moments; they arrive at them as naturally and inevitably as the man in “School Run” backs his car out of the doorway and sees his child’s chalk drawing of a happy family holding hands. Surprise isn’t the priority: even as we suspect all along that the school bully in “The Magician” will disappear, when the story stops at the line “The Great Waldo does not make Frankie reappear and we do not ask him to,” something has been revealed to us. What was implicit has become explicit. Nothing is unsaid, nothing assumed – the characters turn to us with intention and trust.

Sometimes, this means that we acquire some knowledge that takes away the intimacy of a moment. The gravity of the scene lifts suddenly, leaving space for laughter. In “Vocation,” a child’s pet goldfish dies, leading to the dad reusing his father’s eulogy for the funeral, then reusing it again for the death of his neighbour’s dog, finally becoming a professional eulogist: “His father had always wanted him to have a vocation,” the narrator concludes. Stories like this (including “Dearly Departing” and “Peak Hour”) have a wry, understated humour that goes a long way to relieve the tension of more serious pieces like “Pregnancy after loss,” “Salt City Runaway” and “Here on Earth.” All six of these stories regard death but the collection is broad-ranging enough that it turns alternatively – and effortlessly –  towards comedy and poignancy.

Three Can Keep a Secret packs a punch in the precision of its language, its agility as it sweeps through different genres and the natural smoothness of the transitions between one story and the next. Fittingly, the collection comes to a stop with Miriam Fisher’s “The Pull of Dreams” – a story about a mother soothing her son to sleep. Once the son falls asleep, we are alone with the narrator, who is pulled deeper and deeper into the private spaces behind her eyelids, which “pixellate with color.” We are finally left with the image of “the stars dotting the undersides of her feet glow in the dark.” It is an image only we can see. The collection opens itself. We are in on the secret.

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