And like in his first collection, Bad Things Happen, Bertin has come up with some great first lines…
Frank opens the screen door, sweating, his shirt already ruined.
All of us hated their house, even before it was built.
We had always dreamed of teaming up with Oprah.
Not only do they make me ask questions about what’s to come, but reading them again later brought the story right back; the plot, the tone, and the compulsion to keep reading.
In the first story, Waiting for the Heat to Break and the Cold Air and Rain to Move In, Frank visits his friend and fellow comedian, Luke, who is dying of cancer. Along with the oppressive weather, Frank feels stifled by his sorrow and shock at Luke’s skeletal appearance. Meanwhile, Luke tries to lighten the atmosphere with jokes and a cake fight.
As he approaches the door he can see his own shining face, except this time rising up into the surface of the dull blue of the day. Outside it’s still hot and dry, but the wind is picking up. People on the sidewalk look at Frank, with green frosting in his hair and on his forehead and mouth. A lump of chocolate filling on his shoulder like a turd. Those who might have something funny to say about how he looks don’t say anything, because his face is red and tears are streaming down his cheeks, and he’s sobbing audibly.
In Name That Mean Spirit, a new, young family moves into a well-established neighbourhood. The neighbours spy on them and criticize them, but the narrator of the story makes friends with Christy, the mother, and invites her over with the children. It’s not long before Christy is taking advantage of her new friend; leaving the children everyday, taking items of clothes and make-up from the house. There is something about Christy… is she telling the truth about her past? About her husband? Or is she manipulating them all?
I didn’t know it then, but looking back, I understood that I had glimpsed the real her. Her face was slack, her eyes dead, a look of complete exhaustion on her, like a person who had suffered a terrible and recent loss. I didn’t see this on her again, not really. But she caught me staring and firmed her face back into a mask. The one I would see for another three years. It was the mask that I came to know.
In Use Your Imagination!, a man in prison takes the opportunity, through a creative writing program, to tell “his story”. His teacher writes a letter to the Board of Parole in support of a pardon for his student, but the Warden believes the man to be a remorseless manipulator. Part of the Warden’s response…
Ours is a difference of philosophy. Your belief that the role of art is “not to portray the world as it should be, but to portray it exactly as it is” is what I take umbrage at. The role of art is to inspire, and to promote values, and teach important moral lessons. Anything less is taking away from the reader, and taking away from the world. This kind of “art” does nothing more than feed on the sorrow of this material plane and spit it back up as pure, unfiltered and meaningless salaciousness.
The narrator of Cowan is the new boy in the subdivision when he first meets Cowan and his friends. Soon it becomes obvious that Cowan’s “friends” are relentless bullies. Overcome with a type of fascination, the narrator engages in some of the bullying behaviour until his guilt gets the better of him.
Guilt can take up so much room it rents space where good memories ought to be.
The narrator in The Grand Self is the assistant to a successful self-help Guru. They’d been partners for a long time when things went wrong on a guided self-help hike one day, and all went down hill from there. (This story reminded me a little of Sarah Selecky’s Radiant Shimmering Light.)
But what hurts more is something more personal. How it feels when I think back and catch a glimpse of myself then, to think about the kind of person I was. It’s not merely that I’m different – that I dressed in pantsuits and was in and out of meetings all day and now I wear discount-bin tops and jeans – or that my day is different. It’s not that I’m no longer obsessed with my weight and nails and hair and clothing. It’s not merely that sales and members were 80 percent of the things I spoke about back then. It’s not even that I was indifferent to the suffering of the people we worked with, or that I was deeply cynical and had built little mental compartments to justify my taking their money. It’s not even that I had let someone die. What really hurts is that I am only different because it’s all gone.
In The Calls, Maggie’s younger brother, who calls every Sunday afternoon, confesses something to her one day. Maggie’s calm reaction to this confession leads to more confessions, until he finally manages to exceed Maggie’s limits.
It occurred to her that she disagreed with every single thing he was doing.
The narrator of Missy’s Story becomes obsessed with learning the truth about a mysterious girl who, in 1890, stumbled onto her family’s property in the middle of a snowstorm. It was said she couldn’t speak, didn’t know her own name, and slept most days next to the family dog. There were many other stories about her going around, but nothing substantial. In the end, she narrowed her questioning down to one source only – her ailing mother – where she received some surprising results.
My mother had the only evidence that mattered. She was all I focused on because she would be gone, very soon, and her version of the story would be gone too.
Kris Bertin clearly has a talent for story-telling, and is quickly becoming one of my favourites.
My review of Bad Things Happen, Kris Bertin’s debut collection, which has won the Writers’ Union of Canada’s 2017 Danuta Gleed Award and the ReLit Award for short fiction.
Check out Kris Bertin’s other publications, including a mystery graphic novel.
Thank you to Nimbus Publishing / Vagrant Press for sending me a copy of this book!