In I Am Holding Your Hand, Myfanwy Collins delivers nearly forty flash fiction stories that often center around innocence. Given the ambitious nature of this collection, it’s no surprise that some stories display her talents more than others. Ultimately, this is a winning collection with some unfortunate moments. It is also an overfull book—with so many stories, it’s hard to keep track of details.
Collins is at her best when she pulls sleights of hand to conceal information from readers. Take the very short “Shame,” which opens: “I should be running along a path after jumping, breathless, from a stony bank into a chasm filled with mossy water and shivery, splintered rocks […] My shame should be hard-hearted and smoldering, the whole walk home, tar sticking to the bottoms of sockless sneakers.” The precision of Collins’ imagery here spotlights the absence of context for readers who, desperate to find out what the inciting incident was, will doubtlessly read and read again, looking for what isn’t there. The next story, “We Are Awake,” makes similar, skillful use of negative space: So does “Remember”: “The daffodils rise, wetted with your blood. They raise their happy faces to the sun and say, here I am. The grass greens and the tulips push their way up and out.” She doesn’t detail the other person’s death, only gives readers the splotches of memories that remain. Meanwhile, “Anointed” goes for the same effect but leaves too much out for the reader to understand what’s at stake in this story. “Quarter” is another micro-fiction that lacks resonance, though it does touch on the theme of impermanence, as many of the stories in the collection do.
The title story is the most innocent, ending on a lulling note of tenderness: “Remember when you were a boy? You had a white pony and a wide-brimmed hat. Think about that pony, that hat. Focus. I am holding your hand.” Elsewhere, other stories that focus on young characters display innocent moments, such as a touching kite-flying scene in “Mercy.” When juxtaposed with the almost-rape in “What He Told Me,” the tender moments in Collins’ stories are that much more palpable.
Since innocence (and, therefore, innocence lost) is such a theme in this book, it’s not surprising that most sexual encounters detailed here are fraught with negativity. Sexual acts happen as coerced payment for a ride home, between a young girl and her science teacher, with dangerous strangers. In “States of Residency” Collins mentions condom-less sex when the narrator drunkenly has intercourse with her ex, and it comes up again in “The Villager,” both times in order to highlight the risk: “He fucked me without a condom. I wondered if I would die.”
Perhaps the only story to allude to enjoyable sex is “Buddhist.” It would be nice to see more happy instances of sexuality in these stories, especially since the foreplay in “Buddhist” is so victorious: “It was the first time I had ever been kissed by a Buddhist. I felt the orange light within him snake through his mouth into mine. We were high above the world then. On a mountain in Tibet. His hands were not hands but wings beating against me. The air was so sparse that our breath whispered back into our mouths to feed us. We were two mosquitoes meeting, proboscis to proboscis. And I thought, Amen. Amen.”
“Verbatim” is by far the worst offender in its attempts to portray seedy sex. Unfortunately, the plot and characterization of this story are so hackneyed as to be offensive. In the story’s main plotline, a woman becomes fascinated with a prostitute who was murdered by a client and takes to the streets herself so she can meet the prostitute’s killer. The first client who stops turns out to be the killer, and the main character is guided to safety by the dead prostitute helping her from beyond. Fiction doesn’t need more murdered prostitutes any more than it needs another sex worker to be a flat, disposable character. One gets the sense, as with “Freak Magnet” and “Allergic,” that Collins sometimes attempts to write about characters to whom she doesn’t relate so well.
Despite glitches like this, I Am Holding Your Hand is largely poignant and mesmerizing, full of startling turns of phrase that will linger. “We are awake, often, in the night,” Collins writes in “We Are Awake.” “There are noises. There are owls. One who sounds like an owl, and one who sounds like your soul slipping past death.” And there are those of us who are glad that Collins has kept up this vigil and recorded it for us.