"I want to tell you something, so listen." This note of urgency is sounded on the very first line of The Complete Tales of Ketzia Gold, by Kate Bernheimer. Urgency, though, is only one of the qualities this beautiful slim novel exhibits. By turns erotic, manic with intense emotion, tinseled with fairytales and folktales, the stories that make up Ketzia Gold's life, both real and imagined, create a kaleidoscopic vision for the reader, going from dark to light to dark.
Ketzia Gold is the middle child of three daughters growing up in a nameless American suburb. Her home is infused with a kind of magic that has lost its meaning. This is Disney World, not Narnia. Any wonder to be found here is detached and seemingly unconcerned with the reality in which it exists.
Ketzia inhabits a world of familial torture, erotic longing, and not-so-quiet desperation. Subjected to both physical and emotional abuse throughout childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood, Ketzia Gold does her best to retain a sense of sanity in a world gone wrong, but her best attempts still show us that her world is a broken place, filled with dangerous psychological fissures that may open up beneath her feet at any moment. This is revealed through the many self-destructive episodes littered throughout the novel, as well as through Bernheimer's self-conscious narrative structure, a series of episodic snapshots from Ketzia's life set alongside fairytales, photographs, and illustrations. The resulting collage of imagery and narrative follows no strict line of reasoning, nor the conventions of linear storytelling. It's a beautiful and seemingly effortless structure for a reader to follow, considering the complexity of its creation.
Throughout the novel, told alternately in first person and third person, we witness Ketzia Gold's heroic attempts to find meaning in a world that seems to offer her nothing but violence and cold indifference. She takes refuge in reimagining her life as the lives of heroines from Russian, Yiddish, and German folktales. Some of these stories are reprinted in their entirety alongside Bernheimer's retellings of them in contemporary detail, while others are simply alluded to: Ketzia owns a dog named Hansel; at one point, we find her wearing her grandmother's red woolen poncho. These tales, riddled with suffering and darkness themselves, serve to instruct Ketzia in how to escape her own narrative fate, while also freeing her from a sense of isolation -- the old tales teach her that others have come before her, and that, in the senseless vacuum of her life, she is not alone.
Ketzia's life, or at least its surface pattern, will be recognizable to most readers, and it's easy to identify with her. She is considered by some to be the smartest girl in her class. She marries Adam, her high school sweetheart, who comes from a family with a good reputation. But no matter how closely Ketzia follows the plan to make the American dream come true, she finds that it is impossible to actually do so. Ketzia is smart, but she's also puzzled by life, and by the feeling that there is a right way to live it. She is cursed with an inability to live life by the subtle and not so subtle rules with which our culture inundates us from our infancy onwards. Ketzia's husband is a musician, smart, from a "good" family; but he is also emotionally abusive and philandering. He cleverly disguises his emotional torture so that she is viewed by others as "the crazy one," while he still retains his seeming normalcy. When Ketzia's husband reveals the existence of a secret closet and gives her a key, Bernheimer likens their relationship to the tale of Bluebeard. Like Bluebeard's bride, Ketzia is unable to contain her curiosity, her desire to know her husband's secrets. In the closet she finds a variety of objects. Some seem meaningless, while others are incriminating evidence. Ketzia's reflections on her findings illuminate the old tale's meaning with contemporary details from Ketzia's modern world:
I wasn't surprised but I was sad. I didn't mind about the photographs, only that they were hidden -- at the time, that seemed worse, though now I better understand. In any case I closed the closet door as quickly as I could, but every day until Adam got back, I reopened the door, sat on my knees until they were bruised and sore from the floor. I kept trying to arrange the photographs so he wouldn't know I had touched them. What if he had laid a hair across them, though? What if this was all a test?
But I still continued to look! And each time I opened the door, and even when it was shut, I saw Adam's other women. Eventually it became an obsession for me, like my love for him had once been.
Ketzia's relationship with her husband -- like her relationship with her family, especially her sisters -- eventually disintegrates, and she finds herself wandering the desert. In fact, the novel opens with Ketzia living in a hotel in the desert where the manager allows her to stay at a cheaper rate because she allows him to watch her undress and shower through a one-way mirror. Other chapters reveal a Ketzia even further along in the timeline of her life where she has become a transcriber for a detective agency. In these episodes, we find that she has become an emotionally restrained, perhaps even deadened, character, burned out by the intensity of her own past.
Because Kate Bernheimer's knowledge of folk and fairy tales is so thorough, and so obviously close to her own bones (Bernheimer also edited the anthology Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Women Writers Explore Their Favorite Fairy Tales), with The Complete Tales of Ketzia Gold she has created a novel that is inclusive of both genre and mainstream audiences. If you enjoy fairy or folk tales, characters who become part of your own dreams, and prose that leaps from the mundane to the surreal to the mordant in the blink of an eye, then read this book. It is literary, magical, full of delights and disturbances, and utterly unforgettable.
Christopher Barzak's fiction has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Strange Horizons, Nerve, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, Rabid Transit, The Vestal Review, and The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror. He lives in Youngstown, Ohio, where he is pursuing his Master's degree in English at Youngstown State University. You can visit his website, or see his previous contributions to Strange Horizons in our archive.