A Bell Ringing in a Place Thought Dead: Safe as Houses

Michelle Boise

Selected by Jim Shepard as the winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Award, Marie-Helene Bertino's debut collection Safe As Houses, is darkly funny and delivered in a fresh voice both biting and charming. Bertino has taken the short story to new hyperbolic heights that even Aimee Bender would be proud of. In “North Of,” a young woman brings Bob Dylan home for Thanksgiving to try and stop her brother from going to war in Iraq. Fictionalized “Bob Dylan never has his own cigarettes,” and as he fills the space of this new house, his presence acts as the catalyst for conflict. In “Sometimes You Break Their Hearts, Sometimes They Break Yours,” an alien studies humanity and concludes that miracles not only happen but in bizarre form---a desperate string of Christmas lights. This piece is chock-full of maxims on the human condition such as, “Here’s the thing about human beings: sometimes you smash their cars, sometimes they smash yours.” So simple, yet so profound.

Bringing a new spin to the break-up story in “The Idea of Marcel,” Emily finds herself on a date with the ideal version of her ex, only to learn that her actual ex is on a date with his ideal of her. Reaching manic proportions, these convolutions reveal the stark realities of relationships and at what lengths we go to understand our failings. The titular story “Safe As Houses” takes a look at grief as a professor burglarizes houses of their sentimental possessions to teach the owners a lesson in loss. In “Free Ham,” a woman wins a ham after her house has burned down. The employee who gives her the prize also offers to carry her dog food to the car. She tells us, “They hurt me, these small, brutal kindnesses.” These stories are full of such memorable acts of compassion. With innovative language and pithy dialogue, Bertino paints a world that questions the safety of our homes and of our relationships. In the end, these characters find refuge that is beyond four walls. Bertino's stories are surprising and funny and extremely well-crafted. This is a collection not to be missed. In “Great, Wondrous,” the powerless hero tells us, “In a place inside me I thought was dead, a bell rings.” I think after reading Safe As Houses, you might just feel the same.

Safe as Houses
By Marie-Helene Bertino
University of Iowa Press (October 1, 2012)
ISBN: 978-1609381141



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