Book Review

Cheryl Pappas’s debut flash fiction collection, The Clarity of Hunger, explores longing of all kinds. The sixteen stories range from traditional narratives, to fables, to hermit crab fiction—each with striking images and uncluttered, lyrical prose. While some of Pappas’s characters yearn quietly, others seethe before taking radical action to reclaim their lives. All endure the pangs that so often accompany the magic of transformative change.

In “Tending the Elephant,” a woman washes one side of a circus elephant, wondering if the man who cleans the animal’s other side will arrive in time for them to work together. As “the Ferris wheel behind her begins its daily spin,” the man arrives, staying “on the other side of 30,000 pounds of flesh.” Indeed, the woman has never once seen her washing partner, though their work together is a lush, sensory experience. They talk while washing the animal with lavender-scented soap, as “cirrus clouds morph to cumulus” above. All too soon, the distant smell of the woman’s husband’s coffee appears, and a laugh track plays, calling her back to other duties. She leaves the unseen man reluctantly, walking away from a sort of pleasure that does not seem to exist elsewhere in either of their lives. In the dizzying spiral of daily routine, this pair knows even the briefest shared experience can offer welcome relief. “Tending the Elephant,” the fourth story in the book, characterizes the early stages of longing that precede dramatic action. The lurking, patient hunger—though characters may not yet act on it, they crave something more.

While some stories speak to moments of pleasure, in others, Pappas is unafraid to turn a dark corner. Many times in the collection, she uses elements of magic to confront gender and class inequalities. In the fable-like story “The Golden Apple,” a man sends messages through the sky to a kingdom of women who work for him until they beat him to “a bloody, dusty pulp” and “sink their teeth into the succulent oranges” of the land. The blissfully unaware King in “Dreaming of Tulips” meets a similarly gory end. After all, he has enjoyed baths and poppy juice from his naked women attendants instead of solving the problems in his kingdom.

Pappas empowers her female characters by sometimes destroying their oppressors, yes, but also by simply bearing witness to their stories, no matter how grim. In “Let It Out,” a mother takes a walk with her children on a mossy path. From an outsider’s perspective everything may appear calm, but there is much more to this forest stroll. A tiny witch hisses inside the mother’s purse, revealing the narrative secret. “Do you like to burn, girl?” the witch asks quietly, forcing the woman to remember her own problematic response to her husband’s infidelity. Female anger serves as an enchanting force here, even when hidden and buried. In this instance, much of the action has already happened, but inner demons go on whispering about it.

Not all stories in the collection employ elements of magic. In “Stranger,” the protagonist, Claire, clicks on a photo of Jacques online and immediately notices “his smile amid the chaos that seemed to say, Ignore all this. I want to listen to what you have to say.” Claire and Jacques begin corresponding through short messages and photographs that zoom in on only parts of their bodies. Here, again, two people deeply connect from a distance without meeting face-to-face. What nourishes need not always be easy to touch or see, Pappas seems to say. The story insists on the sweeping power of even the smallest exchanges, a reoccurring theme throughout Pappas’s work, and perhaps one reason behind her condensed art form. Momentum builds as Claire and Jacques’s messages continue. Unbeknownst to her husband, Claire books a flight to Paris to meet Jacques in person. While she waits for him at a café, “her stomach gnawed but she didn’t dare be caught mid-bite.” Something happens when these characters are hungry, longing to improve their own lives. The ache pays off, bringing change. This story’s more traditional arc points toward this encounter, which could very well amount to nothing at all. But, as Claire reminds herself, “in three days, anything could happen. You could wreck your whole life. Or crack it so something bright could come in.”

Characters in The Clarity of Hunger may long for different sorts of lives, but they also know that even micro-moments have meaning. Pappas’s signature short form reflects this knowledge too. Her flash pieces reveal that pivotal change so often stems from small beginnings, from the first scent of lavender soap to the photographed eyelash of a favorite correspondent. The sensation of hunger may bring pain, but it also implies an emptiness that leaves room for possibility, even magic: the chance to start over again.

About the Reviewer

Dena Soffer is a literacy coach from St. Louis. She earned her MFA at Bennington and is the recipient of an Author Fellowship from the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing. She was a 2021 finalist for the Meridian Short Prose Prize. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Ploughshares online, Meridian, Cleaver, the Chicago Review of Books and the Cleveland Review of Books. She is currently working on a novel.