Review: Safe as Houses by Marie-Helene Bertino
Author: Marie-Helene Bertino
Published: October 2012 by University of Iowa Press, 164 pages
First Line: “Growing up, I have dreams that my father sets our house on fire.”
Genre/Rating: Short stories; 5/5 little boys lugubriously printing the names of his classmates on their valentines, only to be sent to the office for misbehaviour and miss the entire celebration
Recommended if you like: Amy Hempel, Kelly Link, magic realism, female heroines who are just a little lost, prose so juicily poetic you’re stippled with it when you lift your head from the pages
Review: I get my book recommendations from a variety of sources. Word of mouth. Goodreads. Newspaper and magazine articles. Social media. Love of the author (so I just read everything they publish, sight unseen.) And, more and more lately, book review blogs – more specifically, the blogs of people whose taste I trust implicitly.
I’m not always a short-story person. It has to be a stellar collection to draw me in. Something about short stories makes them easier for me to discard if they’re not perfect little gems. (I think I’m always looking for the next Raymond Carver. Raymond Carver, you have spoiled me for all other authors.)
This collection – you know, I’ve been sitting on this for days, wondering how to convince each and every one of you reading this review to immediately drop what you’re doing (even heavy things, even hot things, even children) and rush out and get this book and not just wade into it, but dive; completely immerse yourself in, and don’t come up until each and every story becomes part of you, is flowing out of your fingertips and toes and the ends of your hair and through your eyes like flashlights in the dark. And I just don’t think I have the words to do a collection like this justice.
There are eight stories, running the gamut from an alien sent to earth to take notes on our behavior to a young woman who brings Bob Dylan home for Thanksgiving dinner as a peace offering for her brother who’s about to leave for war to a woman sitting in her beat-up college clunker of a car, remembering her friends who could make entire buildings disappear just by wanting it badly enough.
There is magic realism (which, if not done well, is terrible; I’m very tough on magic realism. This is magic realism done well. You can’t see the rabbit concealed in the false bottom of the top hat, not in Bertino’s work.) There is love, and loss, and regret, and that small glimmer of hope you keep way down at the bottom of your rib cage, that you don’t tell anyone about in case they laugh at it and put it out, but that you feel burning, every time you take a breath; it’s that glimmer of hope that, some days, keeps you alive.
And when you get to the end of the book, there are the nuns. There are the nuns that take in a lost girl who is replacing her heart with cigarette smoke and apples, and who finds meaning in rainbow stickers and talking to tomatoes and satin slippers.
If I won the lottery tomorrow (a fine feat it would be, since I don’t play the lottery) I would buy you all a copy of this book. I would send it into the world so each of you would wake up to it tomorrow, so you would start reading about women who are lost but are not hopeless, who are bent but not broken, who are at the end of their rope but who are not letting go, who are clinging to that one last little glimmer of hope, sinking their fingernails in and gritting their teeth and hanging the hell on.
The houses in the title aren’t real houses. They are the heart.
I thought of my own heart, which has always been a traitor. Abandoning me at night to lay bets on cockfights and smoke filterless cigarettes. Hoisting me up the legs of whatever man was nearby. Holding in itself dangerous canals and thruways.
The heart is never safe, but it’s the first house we know, and it’s the only house we live in until the day we die, no matter how far we run, no matter where we escape to, no matter where we make our home.
Maybe all I need to say to get you to read it is this: when I got to the end of the very last story, I closed the book, put my head down on the table, and cried until the slight concaves of my glasses were shallow bowls of tears.
I then went online and ordered two copies: one for me to own, and one for someone I love, because I know they’ll love it as much as I did.
My heart may not always be safe, but it’s the only house I know.