Review by J.L. Corbett
Writer: Ross Jeffery
Release date: 1st June 2020
Price: £2.99 (ebook), £8.99 (paperback)
The novella-in-flash format is more popular now than it’s ever been.
For those unfamiliar with the concept, a novella-in-flash is a collection of separate yet related short stories which form a unified plot. A quick Google search suggests that it’s a relatively young medium, with little traces of it before the 1980s. Nowadays, with hundreds of literary magazines specialising in flash fiction, it seems only logical that these ultra-short stories have made the leap into long form books.
In Tethered, Ross Jeffery uses a series of flashes to show the evolving relationship between a father and son, each of whom take turns as narrator. This format gives the story a much wider scope of creativity than a traditional novella, which allows Jeffery more freedom to make the high points of their relationship much sweeter and the low points irrevocably dark.
The opening sentences of the first chapter are worrying: “There’s something very special about being a dad and when you’re blessed with a son? Wow. An overwhelming sense of joy that eclipses that of a daughter – the family name will live on.”
As somebody’s daughter, instantly I was alienated. Is this book really for me?
Thankfully, as I read on, I realised what I was reading. This was a portrait of old-school male toxicity – I was supposed to be horrified by the father’s thoughts and ideas.
In this book, Jeffery manages to sensitively portray a father’s journey from residing within the familiar confines of toxic masculinity, to doubting everything he knows about gender roles, to escaping his regressive mental model and achieving a more progressive way of thinking. This is not a stern finger-wagging at outdated attitudes – it’s an examination of toxic masculinity, an empathic attempt to gain an understanding of it in order to make sure that it doesn’t infect future generations.
Despite being a story about father and son, the father dominates the book. Even the flashes that are told from the son’s perspective revolve around his father; we see his reactions to his father’s aggression and outdated views, his fear, confusion, and guilt at disappointing his father. For most of the book he is too young to understand his father’s behaviour. He can only endure it.
It takes skill to write from a child’s perspective, but Jeffery does this with ease. The son is as complex as his father and written with unflinching honesty.
Much of this book is devastating. It thrusts a magnifying glass upon the psyche of a person that many of us have in our lives; somebody well-meaning but outdated, somebody we love in spite of what they espouse. We all have complicated relationships, the sort that it hurts too much to think about. This book makes us think about it.
I have very few criticisms about this book, and the ones I do have are somewhat petty. Case in point: chapter five, “Spooning”. In this flash, the young son has to endure an uncomfortable disimpaction procedure in hospital after eating so many grapes that he became extremely, impenetrably constipated.
This scene left me with some questions. Do grapes cause constipation? Would a doctor schedule a potentially traumatic disimpaction procedure on a child before attempting any sort of laxative regime? Why am I so invested in this?
One bumpy Google searching session later, I concluded that the answer to most of my questions was “no”. But even if the scene is somewhat surreal, it leads to a touching moment between father and son and moves the story forward, so perhaps the details can be forgiven.
Perhaps one the more interesting aspects of Tethered is the way its format allows it to get creative with storytelling. Chapter two, “On the Shoulders of Giants” is told entirely in couplet sentences, a sort of prose poetry interpretation of the son’s experience sitting atop his father’s shoulders. This unique style of storytelling is rare in traditional books, and so it’s a refreshing way to experience a scene.
The main take away from Tethered is that toxic masculinity hurts everybody, even the perpetrators. What is presented here is not a two-dimensional attack on this sort of outdated attitude, but a compassionate examination, an endeavour to understand and help change, rather than to condemn. Throughout the book, the father shows glimpses of redeemability. He deals with a tug-of-war between his masculinity and wanting to do right by his son. He grows.
You can buy your copy of Tethered here.
Ross Jeffery is a Bristol based writer and Executive Director of Books for STORGY Magazine. Ross has been published in print with STORGY Books, Ellipsis Zine 6, The Bath Flash Fiction Festival 2019, Project 13 Dark and Shlock Magazine. His work has also appeared in various online journals such as STORGY Magazine, About Magazine TX, Elephants Never, 101 Fiction, Ellipsis Zine, Soft Cartel and Idle Ink. Ross lives in Bristol with his wife (Anna) and two children (Eva and Sophie). You can follow him on Twitter here: @Ross1982 and visit his website here: writerrossjeffery.wordpress.com