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Review: Tender Cuts by Jayne Martin

October 14, 2019

by Ashley McGreary

The image of a hand cupping a fractured heart; a motif spray-painted onto a crumbling wall – the cover-image for Jayne Martin’s Tender Cuts (Vine Leaves Press, 2019) reminds us that the symbols we render onto the world are only as durable as the world itself. It is an emblem of love, corruption, entropy, and intimacy delineated in 38 vignettes, whose unflinching study of human experience, particularly in the depths of regret, lost love, and dashed hopes, comes naturally to an author with over twenty years’ experience writing movies-for-television. Tender Cuts, itself an oxymoron detailing the conflicting yet inseparable laughter and anguish of life, is Martin’s second collection, with her book of humour essays, Suitable for Giving: A Collection of Wit with A Side of Wry, being published in 2011. Dubbed “a badass writer if ever there was one” by Kathy Fish, Martin here cements a dark, oblique, unconventional signature, giving us stories which go beyond the casual veneer of life to the cracks and brickwork beneath, stories for the exposed bones of the world.

To approach the true nucleus of this collection, it is necessary, first, to turn to the closing line: “From our porch, my daughter calls me, but the call of the woods is strong.” This is “Final Cut,” the fourth in a linked series of moments evolving throughout the life of Julie-Sue, a pageant queen emotionally betrayed by her mother, and subsequently passes on the fixed patterns of unhappiness to her own daughter. It is a line that speaks to the everyday drama of living, tracing the lives of people wounded, brave, and frequently wickedly funny, as they slip between triumphs and losses. Tender Cuts is for anyone who has ever regretted, been disappointed, or challenged the appropriateness of their responses. Whether through the tongue-in-cheek humour of “Dearly Departed,” where a mother’s physical death has zero impact on her ability to micromanage her daughter’s life – “Yes, I have put on a few pounds … No, Mother. That’s not the reason I’m still single.” – or the visceral analogy in “Morning Glory” of a new-born to a parasitic creeper, “suckling with fury” until its mother becomes “emaciated in her struggle to provide,” this collection delves into the things we do not say and confronts them without compromise, promoting a brutal, admirable honesty.

Tender Cuts, nevertheless, is a collection full of heart, with each vignette prefaced by a stylised image, showing our symbol for tenderness and connection being ill-treated, mangled, bruised, and surrendered. The fact that this heart persists, however, right until the end, at the centre of every image, celebrates the capacity of human strength and resilience. In “Cover Of Darkness,” Anna is still able to appreciate the dawn’s “pink glow spilling over the edge of the Atlantic” and view the necessity of earning a living with forbearance, even while her mother’s shame prompts her to “pull down the shade” on their “fifth floor walk-up window” to hide the result of a night’s work, their access to survival.

Emotion is at the heart of this collection, and its resonance even has a textual signature, with the run-on clauses and irregular punctuation in “Twenty-Eight Days” mimicking the exact flow of thought under stress: “Then she’s locking the bathroom door and peeing on the stick and is it blue for yes and pink for no or the other way around.” Emotion disrupts order and cohesion, while leaving fundamental meaning intact, except where meaning itself falls between opposing frames of reference. The closing line of “Zero Tolerance,” following a child’s experience of racial persecution, shows the devastating power of language, and the critical distinction between knowledge and ignorance: “At the border, they tell Mama they are taking me for a bath.” It is a harmless line taken out of context, and that is the transpicuous, caustic power of Martin’s prose.

Tender Cuts embraces interplay and antitheticality, with eyes becoming symbolic of what is right in front of us, and what we are willingly blind to. Absorbing an atmosphere of domestic violence in “See No Evil,” eyes become protective and incurious: “My Mother needn’t worry about my eyes. They are always closed,” meanwhile, seeking reciprocal connection in “Prom Night” they are rendered obtuse and prosaic: “Their eyes meet for a heartbeat. They do not see.” These are the stories of the unseen, the lives that happen away from anyone’s notice, even those standing right there. This is evoked authoritatively in “The Understudy” where a young woman’s cry for help goes unheeded by a self-interested society. Dropping a ballet slipper from the ledge of a building, she watches it land “among throngs of foot travellers oblivious to all but their digital devices,” where it is “kicked aside several times” and ultimately disregarded. In this digital age, Martin states, we have turned away from a basic human precept: an awareness of, and empathy with, one another, and this disconnection is tangible in many of her vignettes. Untying the second slipper, the young woman wonders “what it will take for them to finally notice her,” and the scathing truth is: not the event of her death, but the media coverage of it.

Martin’s collection embraces gritty realism, while acknowledging that reality itself can easily slip into the surreal, as in “The Elephant Roars,” where emotional detachment, and the quiet breakdown of a marriage, becomes a physical entity that ensnares and obscures, roaring at its own suffering, “but nobody hears it.” The amphitheatre where realism and surrealism collide is in the experience of losing someone, and death is the final major theme of Martin’s collection. From the metaphor of a miscarriage, grown through the fruition and fragility of a sparrow’s nest, to the ultimate triumph of friendship and memory explored through bodily distortions, Martin writes with consummate compassion, acicular precision, and authentic sympathy, for the lost and desperate, the misfits and beauty queens. And, maybe, she writes for the human in us too: that fallible, street-washed, deficient heritage we insistently veneer to hide the cracks beneath.


Ashley McGreary is a fledgling writer with a degree in English and Creative Writing, currently working towards an MA in English Literature. She is at the extreme end of starting out, but hopes eventually to shape a career out of the two things that set her soul on fire: literature and writing.


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