by Beth Bernobich
“A Handful of Pearls”
“Watercolors in the Rain”
“Medusa at Morning”
“Jump to Zion”
“Air and Angels”
Reviewed by Bob Blough
The first short story collection from Beth Bernobich is filled with lyrical writing as this brief passage from “Watercolors in the Rain” is but a brief taste:
“Shades of green and white colored the hospital room, bleeding from verdigris shadows to a bright frothy snow. The halls were quiet in this midnight hour, the patients asleep, and the visitors gone. Only the occasional nurse passed by on her rounds.”
These words are simple yet beautifully evocative of mood. This kind of writing suffuses all of the stories in this collection. Unfortunately, the stories for the most part fail to grab. There is a lot of anguish and pain revealed, with real people dealing with difficult situations, but few of them remain in memory.
The fiction begins (after an introduction by James Patrick Kelly) with “Chrysalide.” The setting, a meticulously drawn French locale of the 1700’s (or an alternate world much like it), leads us to an artist who has the job of painting a wealthy Duke’s new young bride. The milieu is beautiful and the plight of the artist is acute. She knows that she is only an above average painter, save when she employs her gift of seeing into the soul of her model and bringing it forth through her art. The problem arises that in so doing she ruins the future of that soul by blackening it. It’s a great idea with real characters and an interesting solution, but somehow seemed lifeless to me. I read this twice, not because I didn’t understand it but because I was shocked that it left me so cold. A second reading left me admiring the story rather than being stirred by it.
The second story, “Poison,“is SF, which I tend to like more than fantasy, but again I felt the same emotional detachment as in the previous piece. The idea and execution are exotic enough. It takes place on another world where the indigenes have been placed in laboratories to see if a serum from their blood might be created in order to help the colonists alter their own biochemistry. The original species are capable of being male or female after coming of age. It is a story about the love between a brother and sister (or is it sister and brother?) that questions gender realities. The plot moves sufficiently quickly and revolves around an illegal plot to create such a serum. Beautifully realized and written but I was unmoved.
Of the 9 stories in the collection I admired them all but only three of them stick in my memory. The only original piece in the collection is entitled “Jump to Zion.” This one feels less distancing to me, more immediate. It concerns a world that was colonized by the descendents of the slave trade from places such as Haiti. Unfortunately, the culture of slavery has taken hold on this world also. The central figure is a “freed” female slave who can live outside the slave master’s walls but must pay him monthly in order to do so. Her daughter is still a slave in her ex-master’s house and is going to be sent to the palace as a sexual slave. Somehow the mother must find a way for this not to happen. The ramifications of her actions are long-reaching, involving rebellion and eventual justice. This one bit into its premise with a little more grit and was beautifully written.
An older story I feel is the most successful is “Watercolors in the Rain.” (See, even her titles are poetry.) This is a story that uses fantasy tropes to tell the story of the breakup of a long term marriage and an eventual reconciliation on more equal terms. The paragraph I quoted above is the first one in this story and the writing all comes together in a shimmering, poignant whole.
“Marsdog,” while not particularly inventive, is a lovely re-telling of the story of a lost alien (in this case a robot), a lonely boy, and the eventual farewell they must endure. What resonates are the interlinear notes of the story-teller, who comments on the story and its common structure. Fun and memorable.
Other stories include a new technology that allows lovers to experience their whole selves and revolves around the ardent love the two of them share (“Remembrance”), an alien microbiologist who stumbles into some old terrible habits (“A Handful of Pearls”), “Medusa at Morning,” a short-short about Medusa mourning after a lost lover, and “Air and Angels,” another exquisitely drawn historical (or alternate world) story that involves an English gentleman of perhaps the 19th century involving himself with mysterious sisters and their incredible enterprise.
So, while I appreciated this group of stories and was impressed with the skill of the writing, it was more an exercise of fine writing than great genre short stories. That could easily be my own reading, of course. Get the book and read a few to see for yourself. Your mileage may vary.