Sunday, August 18, 2013

On "Safe as Houses" by Marie-Helene Bertino ****

Winner of the 2012 Iowa Short Fiction Award, Bertino's collection shines with stories often tongue-in-cheek and usually a bit odd in their telling, if not their focus on the strange narrator. The best stories in the collection manage to present psychological ideas in very literal ways.

Perhaps the best of examples of this ("This Is Your Will to Live")--though it is better as an idea than in execution--involves a salesman literally laying his heart on a platter for a woman. Another example--and a truly fun story to boot--is "The Idea of Marcel," which involves a couple going out with their ideal selves, that is, with the person they would like to date instead of the person the person is. How far are we willing to stray from ideal for a relationship? And how much of an ideal fades simply because we get to know a person? There is a certain joy in a first date admittedly.

In "Free Ham" a family deals with the burning down of a house. "Sometimes You Break Their Hearts, Sometimes They Break Yours" is more a collection of great lines than a story, which the narrator admits right from the beginning. And the lines are good enough that the "story" remains compelling enough to complete reading. In "North Of," probably my favorite story in the collection, a woman brings Bob Dylan home to visit her family--a mom who is clueless as to who Dylan is and a brother whose growing hatred of life doesn't allow him even to enjoy meeting a visit by his idol. In "Great, Wondrous" young folks perform secret superhero-like miracles at a college, at the cost of a life. "Safe as Houses" involves burglars who break into homes not to steal things of monetary value but to break things of emotional value so that families will come to appreciate one another. And in "Carry Me Home, Sisters of Saint Joseph" involves a gal trying to get over a boyfriend by living in a convent and teaching Catholic school.


Karen Carlson said...

I almost chose this just the other day as my current read (I picked Robin Black's If I Loved You I Would Tell You This instead, which is also great) but it's nice to see more good things about it. I may try to sneak it in if time permits.

Short Story Reader said...

Definitely worth a read. You can check out three of the stories online, if you go to her website (one of them is featured on this blog). I'll have to take a look at Robin Black's collection at some point.