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Thumbing through my library of old books, I recently returned to the incandescent Beth Bernobich’s A Handful of Pearls.
Originally published in print by Lethe Press, but then later republished as an ebook only, the book shares much with that publisher’s other fantasy collections – which often seem to straddle the border between literary and the fantastic. The print edition is a gorgeous artefact in its own right, so if you can get a copy, we recommend picking that up.
Though Bernobich’s prose is smooth and brief, there’s no skimping on narrative either. She is a short story writer who has honed her craft, and this makes the collection an especially impressive read.
‘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 multiply gendered, shapeshifting prostitute and its 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. As you’d expect, it is the ‘savages’ who have cut out the girl’s tongue in the first place. But they are no heroes here, and the girl is left to become a victim to the invaders who come and inflict their own, equally horrific abuses on her. Be warned: there’s no justice and no happy ending in this tale, just a chilling reminder of the atrocities of colonialism and the evil in the heart of men (and I do mean men).
‘Marsdog’ is my least favourite story in the collection. It’s certainly interesting, and is reminiscent of E.T. or Wall.E, but winds up too ‘cutesy’ for my liking. However, flicking through the reviews on Amazon, other readers liked this story more than I did, and so it’s probably just a matter of taste.
‘Medusa at Morning’ suffers only for being too short, so that it becomes a vignette. She shakes off the shackles of an old relationship, releasing her monstrous nature once more, and welcomes the world of freedom. Simple, but well written and succinct.
‘Watercolors in the Rain’ reminded me of The Princess Bride, for absolutely 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 take her art to the next level. 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 overcome these problems.
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. Again, I wanted more – which is surely a sign of a successful short story.
Overall, Bernobich manages to do what few others manage with the same applomb. Her writing is lucid and vivid, yet hints at otherworlds and fantasias with deft strokes, and her characters are engrossing and well-drawn. Bernobich is clearly a master of the short form, and I’m glad I took the time to delve – even briefly – into this little worlds of magic.
Pick up your own copy at Amazon.