Review of Jennifer Tseng’s THE PASSION OF WOO & ISOLDE

The Passion of Woo & Isolde
Jennifer Tseng. Rose Metal Press, $12 chapbook (52p) ISBN: 978-1-941628-09-6

I love when writers cross genres. Fiction, especially flash, becomes stronger when it borrows from poetry—the emotion in object, the power of what’s not said, and endings that change the beginning. Jennifer Tseng, Winner of the Eleventh Annual Rose Metal Short Short Chapbook Competition (judged by Amelia Gray), is an award winning poet and prose writer, and we can see how well the two genres speak to each other in The Passion of Woo & Isolde. The chapbook is full of small narratives, some that stand alone, some that build on each other, all with a keen attention to language, precision, and breadth. The book is broken up into three sections. The first—and in this reader’s opinion, the strongest—section is comprised of standalone shorts. Each has the feel of a modern day fable. A mouse has a covenant with a lion. A woman wakes to find she’s turned into an old man. Sheep live for ages surrounded by an electric fence, some occasionally testing their boundaries. But Tseng uses our prior knowledge of fables to trick us. There is rarely a moral to the story. Instead, there’s either a sharp turn or a dead end just as the conflict begins. Endings like “She had to strain her failing eyes to finally see it,” “She knew if she stood there a minute longer, her life would change completely,” and “The taste of grass,  the secret red burn, were equal to knowing they could go beyond, survive, and return,” stick with us and leave us meditating in the space left behind. The second section tells the story of title characters Woo & Isolde. But rather than the story of their relationship, it is a story of their alienation. The shorts here switch points of view from Woo to Isolde. Tseng has made a surprising choice that feels right by revealing very little of what goes on in the decades of their relationships, instead focusing on moments when Woo or Isolde are alone, even when they’re together. The result is a story less about events and more about character. I was intrigued by the small details in each short: Woo’s suitcases as he travels to America and Isolde’s especially strong back story with the Virgin Mary. However, this section also felt like a snapshot to what could potentially be its own, longer chapbook. I’d be interested to see this story more fully realized. The final section is made of standalone stories about what’s gone and what’s not. They also build off each other thematically and through the confessional feel of the narrator telling stories of lovers and fathers and what could have been. For this reader, the third section was the least compelling, but it offers a new voice to the work, all while maintaining the beautiful attention to language and detail that characterizes each short. (August 2017)

Purchase The Passion of Woo & Isolde HERE.

Reviewer bio: Christy Crutchfield is the author of the novel How to Catch a Coyote. Her work has appeared in Tin HouseMississippi ReviewSalt Hill JournalJuked, and others. Visit her at christycrutchfield.com