Short and Sweet: A Review of Real Sugar is Hard to Find by Sim Kern
Reviewed by Katie McIvor
It’s hard to pin down exactly how I felt after reading Real Sugar is Hard to Find. Sim Kern’s astonishingly assured debut collection of short stories moves between genres and settings, giving us a dystopian sunken world in one story, then a vision of a hopeful, solarpunk near-future in another. At times it swoops into fantasy, at other times it edges towards literary. The prevailing themes, though – children and intergenerational trauma on the one hand, and the power and fragility of the environment on the other – are consistent throughout and are explored in enormous depths.
The first thing to say is that this is not a light read. I skimmed through the Content Warning at the start, placidly thinking, that’s nice and all, but I’m not easily triggered. By the end of the first story, I was a sobbing wreck and felt as if I’d been beaten up. (For readers who have concerns along these lines, there is also a full list of trigger warnings for each story at the end of the book.) Motherhood is examined in all its grizzly horror. The control and policing of parental choice is considered from every conceivable angle. There’s child abuse, suicide, broken homes, broken people. And yet, my impression of these stories is not of darkness or misery; if anything, they highlight the importance of love, whether between partners, between parents and children, or between strangers.
The stories shift effortlessly between physical and psychological trauma. The grisly demands of childbirth on mothers’ bodies are explored in often hideous detail. In ‘The Propagator’, for instance, Kern envisions a future Houston where pro-life doctrine has gone so far that the narrator is forced to carry to term a baby who has no chance of survival. At the same time, plants are prohibitively expensive and can only be propagated by permit, a system policed by unscrupulous distributor VerdiCorp (this should strike a real chord for those of us who found ourselves stocking up on houseplants during lockdown). Several stories include heart-rending descriptions of the terror and anxiety parents feel towards their children: perhaps the most poignant is ‘The Night Heron’, in which the parent’s fear, personified as Death, literally interrupts a happy scene of a child playing on a swing. Abusive partners also form a recurring theme, often linked to or contrasted with the resilience and fragility of the natural world – “the magic of growing things” – as in the beautiful ‘Tadpoles’, where a rapidly drying puddle full of doomed tadpoles provides a reflection of the narrator’s own need to escape.
Possibly my favourite story from the collection was ‘Unwhole’, a trippy, gut-churning, sci-fi/horror meditation on the erosion of self which comes with motherhood. Kern makes extremely effective use of the second-person tense to plunge the reader into the helpless horror of a new mother waking from a traumatic birth. I won’t spoil the concept too much, but it involves “fifth-degree” tearing (eek) and an outrageously vivid depiction of the first postpartum bowel movement (“there is no epidural for this”).
The title story posits a future where people live in domes, with the world outside roamed by “lawless bands of punks” and “domeless” people. The cyberpunk possibilities here are obvious, but, in typical Kern fashion, they’re mostly used as backdrop to a sad, sweet little tale about a mother trying to make a cake for her depressed daughter’s birthday. Similarly, in ‘The Listener’, what seems like kind of a hippy concept – a character who can hear the voices of trees – is unexpectedly taken to some very dark, and very logical, places. (I also have to mention that the tree voices are completely adorable: “Aaaahhhhh, sun or Mmmmmm, rain or Oo-hoo-hoo, wind!”.)
The writing is consistently beautiful. Kern contrasts visceral imagery (“drive my fingers through the skin of his neck”) with poetic descriptions of place: “this swamp city where the trees are all stunted, and the air was humid as frog’s breath”. There was only one page where I felt like I was a victim of infodumping, which is really good going for a science-fiction book.
The cohesiveness of the collection is a real achievement, given the range of genres and subject matter and the stand-alone nature of each of the stories. Through every precise, pared-back paragraph, every carefully crafted sentence, there runs a thread of continuous urgency, as Kern builds story on top of story into a thematically unified whole. You might not feel exactly hopeful or happy about the state of the world after diving into Sim Kern’s luminous imagination, but I can promise you’ll feel something – which, as these stories remind us, is surely the whole point of being alive.
Katie McIvor grew up in Scotland and studied at the University of Cambridge. She now lives in England and works at a language library, where she is surrounded by books and films in over 200 languages. When not struggling to alphabetise Japanese textbooks, she likes to go on long walks with her husband and two dogs. Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Terrain.org, Mythaxis Magazine and Potato Soup Journal.
Katie can be found on Twitter @_McKatie_