Safe as Houses

Image of Safe as Houses (Iowa Short Fiction Award)
Release Date: 
October 1, 2012
University Of Iowa Press
Reviewed by: 

“Safe as Houses, [is] a collection of short stories making reading a truly healing and memorable experience.”

The aesthetics of short fiction are different from the aesthetics of long fiction.

A novel extends the imagination and encourages it to free float by engaging the reader in a play of distance and intimacy. By contrast, short stories function by means of their compact characters, pulling our mind’s eye inward and demanding our concentrated empathy.

Marie-Helene Bertino’s short stories are a prime example of the latter.

The majority are 4,000–5,000 words in length, organized as a series of highly evocative scenes, often in first-person narrative, occasionally moving back and forth from first- to third-person or from past to present tense.

The balance between prose and dialogue is masterfully crafted throughout—and then, suddenly, out of the blue, yet perfectly fitting, comes a piece of wisdom, packed in a few sentences or just some words, and the Aha! moment that follows is cathartic, sad, and funny all at the same time.

Here is an example from the second story, entitled “Sometimes You Break their Hearts, Sometimes They Break Yours,” about a girl working at a launderette and trying to come to terms with her loneliness:

“You’re not allowed to feel bad about anything when you are around people in wheelchairs, which is why I don’t like people in wheelchairs. You can say, Sometimes at night I wake up and my throat is filled with loneliness and I am choking. And they will say, I am in a wheelchair. Any they will win. They are the human pain equivalent of a royal flash.”

Or ponder the following scene from “Carry Me Home, Sisters of Saint Joseph” about another young woman trying to get over her boyfriend, quit smoking and find new meaning in life:

“I am quitting a boy like people quit smoking. I am not quitting smoking. The pamphlet insists: Each time you crave a cigarette, eat an apple or start a hobby! Each time I think about Clive, I smoke a cigarette. If I have already smoked a cigarette, I eat an apple. If I have already eaten an apple, I start a hobby. I smoke two packs a day. I pogo-stick, butterfly-collect, macramé, decoupage. I eat nothing but apples. I sit in my kitchen, a hundred of them arranged on the table. If I can eat this pyramid of apples, I will be over Clive.”

Ms. Bertino’s short stories spring from the experience of mourning related to broken families, hearts, and dreams; friendship; falling out of love; losing and then finding again one’s drive for life.

But grief, unlike depression, never loses sight of the beacon of hope—and that too comes out strong in Safe as Houses, a collection of short stories making reading a truly healing and memorable experience.