Review: “Smaller Than Most” by Kristine Ong Muslim

Smaller Than Most

Kristine Ong Muslim’s Smaller Than Most is indeed aptly named, each piece ranging from a few sentences to a couple of pages in length. It is written sparingly, with not a word more than required to give the intended message. There is an element of the poetic in the careful selection of phrasing and placement. These pieces read snappily, catchingly and incite a compulsion to read on, despite some of the horrors held within. Smaller Than Most is to be frank, perplexing and a little unsettling. The depth of the anguished darkness in the pieces cobbled together to comprise this collection is not subtle–though very cryptic, the iniquity in so many little bursts and hidden undertones throughout is unavoidable and striking.

Corruption is rife within these stories: that much is indisputable, but where the pattern becomes less predictable is in the root of it. Drawing together a clashing infusion of reality and make-believe, Muslim embarks on a baffling continual shifting of blame throughout. In many cases, the protagonist seems goaded, tricked into wrongdoing–for example, in “How They Make Skins”:

Russ couldn’t care less. He said I need to put some green powder in Daddy’s coffee. I believed Russ and gave Daddy the powder which made Daddy mad at Mommy and now I have to live with Aunt Molly.

Here, of course, we are observing an impressionable child; but we see this blame-shift in reverse in “Prodigal”, where our narrator seems to take inspiration in exactly the same way as the 11-year-old Julie Nash–but as a parent from her four-year-old daughter:

One night she whispered to me: Put my plastic doll at the top of the stairs and turn off the lamp. I called the ambulance an hour later. We buried John Haldane a week after that.

Yet somewhere in the midst of this myriad of dodging realism with fantasy is a lucidity that seems to accept responsibility for all else. In “Before the Homerun”, with the concept that before all that is to come in love there is a moment when we choose to step into it, and are in control:

Before the inevitable home run, you remember how you once have to stop, to linger for just a misstep on the third base.

“Flash fiction” is certainly a most appropriate term to describe this collection, each short story a window into the lives and minds of its protagonists, flung open for the briefest and most tantalizing few moments. The length of each on face value is disproportionate to the length of time it takes to really read it. Through Muslim’s unique way of asking more questions than are answered in the course of the text, we are left with many questions unresolved as we draw to the end of these pages–not least perhaps the largest of all: what of this unusual ensemble is real and what imaginary?

Smaller Than Most is published online for free by Philistine Press. You can find it at: www.philistinepress.com.

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Laura McDonald writes in Charlestown, Fife. Her poetry and literary reviews have appeared both in print and in online journals, and she can be contacted at www.twitter.com/lauracmcdonald.