“Set a Crow to Catch a Crow” Mary-Jane Holmes (V. Press) – book review

Mary-Jane Holmes Set a Crown to Catch a Crow book cover

“Set a Crow to Catch a Crow” is a collection of flash fiction. Unsurprisingly birds (not just crows) feature throughout, although not in every story. The title refers to the method of using a bird of prey to either lure in or scare off other birds. Most explore aspects of rural poverty, work that can’t be confined to office hours and the effects on relationships. In the opening story, “Flock”, Edith’s husband Tom shoots at the starlings gathering on their roof because he’s fed up of cleaning guano off the ridge tiles but leaves her to patch up the holes he’s created. She begins to feel empathy with the birds and envies their ease of chattering with each other, something lacking from her marriage. Her empathy changes everything.

In a desert, a boat seems a strange choice to keep outside a home until the “Covenant” is realised and it begins to rain, separating another husband too busy for his wife. This theme is picked up again in “Settlement” where a farmer goes to mend a wall, remembering his wife told him he was too tied to the farm. Clearing his head, he agrees and returns home but will he get there in time?

In the title story, a farmer with mounting debts turns down the offer of decoy crows since baliffs have taken her livestock away. The man making the offers her a couple of ewes instead, but two sheep don’t make a flock. She watches him leave, the implication is that business between them isn’t finished.

The decoy theme is stronger in “カラオ. Kara (empty) Okesutora (orchestra)” better known as karaoke, ’empty orchestra’ being a more literal translation. A recycling centre worker finds karaoke machine, takes it home (against rules but manager Dianne waves him through) and fixes it. Knowing Dianne loves karaoke, he hatches a plan. In “Dispatch”, a woman is given an empty box addressed to Eros. The postman offers to take it back and so she has to choose to heed the message or ignore it.

Readers’ expectations are played with too. “Girl’s Guide to Fly Fishing” turns out not to be narrated by someone who needs teaching how to fish. There’s a wry humour but it’s not focused on someone’s ignorance or the friction between an expert and amateur. “Fission” plays on the ‘world is our oyster’ cliche. “Regulus” and “Regulus (Take Two)” play on the symbolism in the titular star, the brightest in the constellation of Leo.

Birds in the shape of peacocks, bantam hens, owls return in the later stories. A husband still lusts after his wife. A widow is left to care for her late husband’s flock, despite her resentment when he’d spend so much time with them. A sacrifice is made in an attempt to rid a village of plague. In the final story, “Repossession”, a farmer, “doesn’t remember is how the ground went from soft beneath his soles to cinching him at the waist, and why he hadn’t kept the bird, trussed it and laid it before her, his trump card to prove her wrong. Then she might’ve smiled again, eyes glossy like the leaflets she leaves slipped between the other final demands. But he’s sunk too far, the peat gritty against his lips.”

The characters are sympathetically drawn. Mary-Jane Holmes knows how to give a reader sufficient detail to understand a character’s motives but also trusting readers to build their own pictures of who the characters are and their relationships to each other. With minimal sketches each story is fleshed out to not only convey the characters’ lives but also their histories and their futures. The stories explore complex issues, poverty, keeping a family together, keeping relationships going or fresh starts and the fear of beginning again. The decoys are dispatched effectively: some characters are lying to themselves: believing they know what the problem is and not willing to listen and understand the actual problem. Sometimes the decoys lure the character to acknowledge and resolve their problem. The stories in “Set a Crow to Catch a Crow” reward re-reading.

“Set a Crow to Catch a Crow” is available from V. Press.

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

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