‘Experimental yet accessible’ – My Mother Was An Upright Piano by Tania Hershman

Short short fiction aka flash fiction has a hard job with visibility. It’s so… short.  Ephemeral. Over in an instant. And not a format that traditional publishers are falling over themselves to get into print. So it’s something of an achievement thatTania Hershman’s collection of flash fictions, My Mother Was An Upright Piano, has not only been published but also featured on BBC Radio 4’s Pick of theWeek.

Short fiction apparently doesn’t sell perhaps because it is notoriously ‘difficult’.  It’s stuff to be studied in universities, not read for pleasure. Or is it? Hershman’s fictions are experimental yet accessible, and their length acts in their favour in a world where we are all apparently time-poor and attention deficit disordered.

The title story is a great place to start. It showcases Hershman’s ability to extend an apt metaphor, and make it resound with meaning, humour and pathos in a minimum of words:

“My mother was an upright piano, spine erect, lid tightly closed, unplayable except by the maestro. My father was not the maestro.”

The whole story is barely more than a page long, but this first line takes you right to the heart of the issue. Getting the opening right is one of the big challenges of short form writing, and it’s one of Hershman’s real strengths.

Another is her range: she’s good at upbeat stories about the fragile start of love and lust; she’s great at writing about damaged, inarticulate people, and she’s got an interesting sideline in science/fiction going on that I feel would be worth her exploring in longer form. She’s also strong on horrific and heart rending scenarios, which pepper the collection – stories like ‘Move Quickly Now’, ‘The Angle of His Bending’ or ‘Into The Waiting Arms of God’, which are obliquely told, yet which leave you chilled. Again no mean feat in the confines of a couple of hundred words.

She also experiments with form, with some good results – I particularly liked the stories told from the point of view of trees (‘The Apple Trees Watched and Wondered’) and a new born baby (‘Colours Shift and Fade’) and those about people in queues (‘Waiting In Line’ and ‘The Beam Line’).

This is strong and assured writing, which demands your attention. No skimming or scanning here: but even the most time starved potential reader can and should be able to spare three minutes to give undivided attention to one of these.

A minor quibble: I spotted four typos in the edition I read. At a cover price of £9.99 for a paperback, I’d expect better. In case there’s a chance of a second print run, Tangent Books editor please take note.

Any Cop?: Good book for people with no time. Read on public transport, between meetings, when the baby’s having a nap. Recommended for aspiring short fiction writers. Read this and learn your craft.


Ebba Brooks

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