Friday, 19 November 2010

Review: A Handful of Pearls by Beth Bernobich

I am only recently rediscovering short stories. Since I handed over the reins of my own short story magazine, Polluto, to my General Editor so I could focus instead on my own writing projects and my growing publishing company, I'd not so much as looked at a single short story for half a year. Luckily, that's all changed.

And it's in no small part due to Lethe Press, run by Steve Berman. First I discovered Disturbed by Her Song by the wonderfully talented, multi-award-winning Tanith Lee. Then I discovered Diana Comet & Other Improbable Stories by Sandra McDonald listed alongside Lee--and beside her, the incandescent Beth Bernobich's A Handful of Pearls.

Lethe Press' fantasy collections quite ably straddle the border between literary and the fantastic, the poetic and the shapely, the dreamy and the real. Though the prose is smooth and tasty, there's no skimping on narrative either, in this collection.

'Poison' was perhaps my favourite story of the collection, and it subtlely declares the main themes of this collection: love, sexuality, freedom and otherness. A gender-bending, shapeshifting prostitute and his/her brother/sister/lover face oppression and abuse in a society where they are an exotic urban legend, but then discover kindness can exist in the most unexpected places, and comfort can be had even in the slums.

'Jump to Zion' is nothing to do with Zionism or Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and everything to do with black liberation and orisha worship ('voodoo' to the tabloid readers). A mother and former slave finds herself still anything but free, and must make a hard choice to save the life, sanity and modesty of her daughter when she is betrayed by her former master. This haunting, bloody tale of spirits and revolution is superb, and the creole language used is evocative and powerful.

'A Handful of Pearls' is a disturbing tale of abuse, imperialism and exploration, as a research team arrives on a strange island to find a girl without a tongue living feral in the wilds. But there are no noble savages here, thank god, and so Bernobich neatly elides the Pocahontas-in-Blue fairytales of James Cameron et al. Indeed, it is the 'savages' who have cut out the girl's tongue in the first place, leaving her a victim to the invaders who come and inflict their own abuses on her. Be warned, though, there's no justice and no happy ending in this tale, just a chilling reminder of how even the most normal of us can commit horrible attrocities with little consideration.

'Marsdog' is my least favourite story in the collection. It's certainly interesting, and plays nicely with the E.T. strand of stories, but winds up too 'cutesy' for my liking. However other reviewers liked this story more than I did, and so it's probably just a matter of taste.

'Medusing at Morning' suffers only for being too short, so that it becomes a vignette rather than a real story. She shakes off the shackles of an old relationship, freeing her monstrous nature once more, but nothing else really happens. Then again, maybe that's okay.

'Watercolors in the Rain' reminded me of The Princess Bride, for no reason at all. In it, a woman in a coma dreams she is in a castle, held there by a witch, and her ex, now a prince, must fight his way to save her. But is this really a dream, or is this reality? Bernobich's storytelling acumen makes up for an otherwise predictable stock narrative.

'Chrysalide', which opens the collection, is very delicious indeed. In this story a painter with a so-so talent has a rather sinister trick up her sleeve to make her artwork more . . . powerful. Unfortunately, when she gets a very well respected and wealthy client, she must turn her destructive art upon herself to get the result she so desires.

'Remembrance' is a raunchy story of lesbian love, gardening and the military. Kept apart by war and career, two lovers undergo experimental surgery to 'experience' each other across the chasm of space. Loss and separation are at the heart of the narrative, until a nice open ending offers what's needed to balance these out. This rather reminds me of my essay on teledildonics and the virtual lesbian, which I wrote for a University of Texas critical anthology that never came out. (Teledildonics, by the way, refers to sex via a distance, using technology as an intermediary. Such as cybersex.)

Finally 'Air and Angels' is an English-themed tale of courtship and observatories, detailing a strange family and their quest to find a strange planet. The way Bernobich evokes turn-of-the-century Britain and its obsession with manners and social interplay is superb, and adds to the subversive thrill when the science fictional elements creep in. This is a very flavoursome piece of Georgian SF with a fabulous ending where my only complaint is that I wanted more.

Overall, Bernobich manages to do what few others manage with such applomb. Her writing is lucid and vivid, yet hints at otherworlds and fantasias with deft strokes, and her characters engrossing and well-drawn. Bernobich is clearly a master of the short form, and I'm glad I took the time to rediscover short stories with her.

Rating: 4/5

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