New Friendships, Old Trauma: Book review of Tess and Tattoos, a short story by H. A. Leuschel

Tess and Tattoos by H. A. Leuschel is a short story whose thematic concerns revolve around the figure of Tess, a cultured woman in her eighties who resides in a Scottish care home, and whose life is reaching its end. Lonely and isolated, she strives to preserve her independence and dignity, but is haunted by her troubled past and a sense of a life wasted. Tess is a well-drawn, sympathetic character and the environment of the care home and its gardens is competently realized.

Structurally, Tess and Tattoos alternates between Tess herself and Sandra (a new nurse), plus italicized sections devoted to Tess’s innermost thoughts, which dwell on a painful relationship. They also turn to her son in Australia, with whom she speaks once a week on the telephone. This structure works well and contains some nice transitions, although in one or two places my initial confusion would have been dispelled by the use of a character’s name rather than simply ‘she’.

The story builds to a dramatic revelation that will ask some readers to rethink their expectations and assumptions. This is a classic device that is always welcome in a story of this length, which can be read comfortably in a few hours. The concluding pages of explanation and discovery lose in artistry what they gain in lengthy exposition and extra-diegetic motivation.

With a little careful rereading and judicious rewriting, the author might easily have eliminated some ubiquitous infelicities, repetitions and curious constructions. H. A. Leuschel is inclined to carry a word or phrase over with her from the previous sentence. On the first page alone, ‘the odd’ is used twice in quick succession, ‘up’ is repeated three times in the space of two sentences, and ‘all’ is used twice in the same short clause. Repetition, used wisely, can be effective, but in these instances it is merely clumsy, and it is a problem throughout the text.

In addition, pleonasms abound. Many of them are minor but, taken together, they disturb the reading experience. For instance, ‘wait for the kettle to boil its contents’ is not something anyone would say. Similarly with ‘drove into the indicated staff car park’ and ‘whistling to the tune of the music’. ‘Pushing excessively onto the accelerator whenever possible’ requires no comment from me. The list goes on.

The author also has a tendency to lapse into hackneyed phraseology, while favourite qualifiers such as ‘slightly’ display an irritating reluctance to be precise. The story takes place in a Scottish care home, so the US-English ‘dove’ (instead of ‘dived’) and ‘guy in the garage’ sound out of place. An abundance of missing commas change the author’s intended meanings – amusingly so in ‘They’d been far from a picture of the perfect family with their socks lying around’. And ‘literally burning with impatience’ should not be taken literally, lest the reader be alarmed.

As these pervasive problems suggest, Tess and Tattoos still needs a lot of work, but I have no doubt it will reach an appreciative audience.

Helene Leuschel Publishing | ebook