Beth Bernobich's collection of ten short stories deals with gender ambiguities, the loss of love, women who won’t stay in their assigned categories, and alternate world settings. These, however, are the effects, not the cause. As James Patrick Kelly points out in his introduction, "I was struck by how often they turn on secrets." (p. 9) If the etymologists are right, "secret" derives from a Latin word meaning "to set apart." In many of the stories in A Handful of Pearls, that is the situation Bernobich's protagonists find themselves in.
The first story, "Chrysalide" (Polyphony 2, 2003) is a good example. Set in what feels like fifteenth century France, Claudette Theron is commissioned to paint the portrait of the Anais of Belfort, wife of Duke Hugh of Belfort. Claudette's gift, her extraordinary skill at painting, is rooted in a toxic secret. Great gifts are said to bring great responsibilities, and the gifted often have to hide their faces, but in an interesting inversion, Claudette's gift brings irresponsibility and reveals what must be hidden. The story paints Claudette's background as she works, so that at its climax, when she has to decide whether to use her gift or not, we have a sense of what's at stake for her soul. There are echoes of Dorian Gray, perhaps inevitable in any story involving portraits, corruption, and self-knowledge.
Corruption of a different sort informs the stories "Poison" (Strange Horizons, 2003) and "A Handful of Pearls" (Interzone, 2003). Both are set in an alternate world, mostly similar to this one. "Poison," set in the city of Bagluar, has three kinds of human mutants. The main characters, Yanna and Daksa, are Tikaka siblings. The Tikaka are capable of turning male or female at will. They are a minority in Bagluar, whose population mostly consists of the gender-fixed majority, the Umatu, and the predatory carnivores, the Pemburu (they don’t play a significant role in the story).
Gender concerns are not new to SF, of course. Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel The Left Hand of Darkness posited a gendered individual visiting a world populated with ungendered people. In "Poison," we have an ungendered couple caught in a gendered world. While Le Guin's novel was interested in understanding the Other, here the story is about survival. Yanna sells "her" body, and Daksa's emotions as "she" watches "her" sibling get ready for one such transaction involve a mixture of sorrow, anger, and lust. The nature of the client's demands and Yanna's refusal to share those demands with Daksa is what sets the story in motion.
On the surface, the story deals with Yanna and Daksa's difficult relationship, but there are subtler undercurrents. Daksa's need to know all about Yanna could be interpreted as jealous love, but it also feels controlling and unhealthy, as though Daksa sees her and Yanna's bodies as joint property. Not knowing what Yanna is up to makes her feel like a two-headed snake. Snakes are also recalled when Bernobich describes Yanna and Daksa's coupling: "Our bodies moved in ripples, like one wave following its cousin." (p. 66) Perhaps the Tikaka are indeed snakes in the gendered garden; the gender-fixed Umatu certainly find them to be a source of fear and great (illicit) desire.
Illicit desire is a thread that also runs through "A Handful of Pearls." It is set in the same alternate world as "Poison" (though it didn’t need to be). In the story, a group of explorer-scientists land on an archipelago and proceed to do what explorer-scientists do. It quickly becomes clear the story's narrator is a conflicted figure, somebody carrying a secret. An orphaned child is discovered on the island, and the narrator's disturbing response to the child soon forces us to deal with the unreliability of his narration. While engaging, the story feels like a chapter from a larger work in that there are references to places and backstories that don't have much to do with the plot.
"Remembrance" (Sex in the System, 2006) and "Marsdog" (Coyote Wilde, 2007) deal with more self-contained alternate worlds. Both stories are concerned with the same question: how do we survive the loss of something we love? In "Remembrance," a woman loses her lover to a tragic accident, but technology enables her to keep her beloved alive in the form of relived memories. The idea that technology can help our love life is hardly new, but in "Remembrance" this help is given a poignant treatment. In "Marsdog," a boy—"Let's call him Jimmy and pretend that he's a boy" (p. 100) —finds an artifact—all right, a dog—and learns that friendship can span the chasm between languages, cultures, species, and even planets. Fortunately or unfortunately, both stories have the feel of old-fashioned problem stories.
The stories reveal a sentimental streak in Bernobich's writing. There's a soft golden halo that tends to appear towards the end of stories in A Handful of Pearls. Bernobich is reluctant to have her protagonists not get what they want. In "Watercolors in the Rain," (Fictitious Force, 2005), a couple work through their marital conflicts via shared dreams filled with fairytale images. The story evokes, appropriately enough, regret, nostalgia, and a gentle sadness. But the golden halo will have none of that and forces the couple into a happy embrace. And then a dance. And then one more dance, just to be sure.
It shouldn't be surprising therefore that my two favorite stories in the collection—"Medusa at Morning" (Strange Horizons, 2001) and a new story, "Jump to Zion"—were thoroughly unsentimental. "Medusa" is a flash fiction piece, but packs a lot of content in its sparse frame. Medusa's secret, like Samson's, rests in her hair. The similarity between the tragic fates of these two very different individuals is not only startling but also highlights the gender bias in interpreting Medusa's story as an instance of "hell hath no fury like a woman scorned" and Samson's as that of a hero betrayed. Betrayal blinds Samson; here, Medusa's eyes are opened for the first time.
"Jump to Zion" narrates the story of a slave woman, Adjua, who achieves her freedom, not only from her master, but also from her hate. This must have been a difficult story to write, for it requires seeing the world from a slave's point of view. There are touches of Haiti's history here and there, and especially of its great Spartacus, Toussaint l'Ouverture, but the story is Adjua's. Bernobich paints a convincing portrait of a woman trying to protect her daughter from having to endure the horrors of an enslaved life. As she negotiates with powerful men—her master, his factotum, a benevolent supporter of the revolution, and her ex-husband—what is of most interest is how she negotiates with her own thirst for revenge.
By now, it should be clear that secrets are an important but not the only factor driving the anthology's stories. Secrets are a mainspring, but not necessarily what the stories in A Handful of Pearls are about. The stories' settings are rich enough to support an ecology of conflicts. Readers with a taste for thoughtful fantasy will find much to savor in Beth Bernobich's anthology.
Anil Menon worked for about nine years in software R&D worrying about things like secure distributed databases and evolutionary computation. Then he shifted to a different kind of fiction. His stories can be found in magazines such as Albedo One, Chiaroscuro, Interzone, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, New Genre, Strange Horizons, and anthologies such as TEL: Stories, Shockwave, and From the Trenches. He was nominated for the 2006 Carl Brandon Society's Parallax Prize and the 2007 Million Writers Award. His YA novel The Beast with Nine Billion Feet is out now from Zubaan Books.
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