Review: Safe as Houses by Marie-Helene Bertino

Title: Safe as Houses
Author: Marie-Helene Bertino
Publisher: University of Iowa Press
Released: October 2012
Source: publisher (NetGalley)

Synopsis (from Goodreads):

Safe as Houses, the debut story collection of Marie-Helene Bertino, proves that not all homes are shelters. The titular story revolves around an aging English professor who, mourning the loss of his wife, robs other people’s homes of their sentimental knick-knacks. In “Free Ham,” a young dropout wins a ham after her house burns down and refuses to accept it. “Has my ham done anything wrong?” she asks when the grocery store manager demands that she claim it.

In “Carry Me Home, Sisters of Saint Joseph,” a failed commercial writer moves into the basement of a convent and inadvertently discovers the secrets of the Sisters of Saint Joseph. A girl, hoping to talk her brother out of enlisting in the army, brings Bob Dylan home for Thanksgiving dinner in the quiet, dreamy “North Of.” In “The Idea of Marcel,” Emily, a conservative, elegant girl, has dinner with the idea of her ex-boyfriend, Marcel. In a night filled with baffling coincidences, including Marcel having dinner with his idea of Emily, she wonders why we tend to be more in love with ideas than with reality. In and out of the rooms of these gritty, whimsical stories roam troubled, funny people struggling to reconcile their circumstances to some kind of American Ideal and failing, over and over.

The stories of Safe as Houses are magical and original and help answer such universal and existential questions as: How far will we go to stay loyal to our friends? Can we love a man even though he is inches shorter than our ideal? Why doesn’t Bob Dylan ever have his own smokes? And are there patron saints for everything, even lost socks and bad movies? All homes are not shelters. But then again, some are. Welcome to the home of Marie-Helene Bertino.

Safe as Houses is an eclectic collection of short stories, bordering on the wildly strange and fantastical while remaining down-to-earth. That sounds crazy, I know! Yet Bertino somehow manages to make her readers feel her stories are based in reality, even with passages such as: “The name of the planet I’m from does not have an English equivalent. Roughly, it sounds like a cricket hopping onto a plate of rice. I am here to take notes on human beings.” Readers never quite reach that surreal, dream-like state that occurs when reading works by Aimee Bender or Haruki Murakami, but the element is still there. This makes for a satisfying collection for those who enjoy a quirky read, but don’t want something that is too “out there.”

I don’t know which story I liked best; I was thrilled by each and every one, all for different reasons. Each story was so unique, really its own entity. Yet there was a common thread pulling the stories together into a collection – that of people interacting, loving and showing kindness to each other, figuring out how to relate to others, trying to understand themselves and their world.

Having read Lungs Full of Noise Tessa Mellas recently, Safe as Houses brought me to this conclusion: The Iowa Short Fiction Award must now and forever be on my watch list. I’m afraid I’ll have to go back and read the winners from years past as well.

Such a fantastic collection of short stories, one you’ll be glad you added to your reading list.

Just before clicking “publish” on this review, I came across
this amazing trailer for the book. Enjoy!

I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. I did not receive any other compensation for this review.

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