Beth Bernobich

Lethe Press


420pp/$7.99/March 2003

Handful of Pearls
Cover by Vincent Chong

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

A Handful of Pearls is Beth Bernobich's debut collection, including nine stories previously published in as diverse places as Strange Horizons, Interzone, and Polyphony.  Following on the heals of her book Ars Memoriae, A Handful of Pearls provides readers with a variety of different views of Bernobich's style and thematic concerns.

“Chrysalide” is the story of a painter in a pseudo-Renaissance setting. Bernobich focuses not only on Claudette Theron’s work as she paints a portrait of the new Duchess of Belfort, but also on Claudette’s own life, her need to help out her struggling son, the paintings she has done in the past, her need for the King’s patronage, and her ability to capture the true essence of a person, although at great cost.  In the course of creating this painting, on which she feels she has so much riding, Claudette learns a little of where her own talent actually lies. There is a weakness in the story in that Claudette has built a successful career, yet sees this single commission as likely to make or break her reputation.

In "Poison," Bernobich creates a complex relationship between a pair of hermaphroditic siblings and their friends. Viewed by Daksa, the tounger sibling, Bernobich shares the story of Yenny, whose work as a courtesan allows the four to survive, occasionally even thrive. When Yenny takes on a new client and disappears for increasing periods of time, Daksa becomes more and more concerned about Yenny's well-being.  Yenny and Daksa are content with who they are, although they do live in a society which causes them to question whether a "normal" life might be more desirable, especially after the impossible happens to Yenny.  "Poison" not only deals with gender identity questions and the role of those without a clearly defined gender in society, but also takes on societal taboos in a matter-of-fact manner which makes complete sense for the characters Bernobich has created.

“A Handful of Pearls,” the collection’s titular story, is a tale of a scientific expedition on a planet which is similar to our own.  A band of native scientists are exploring a tropical island and discover a young boy where he shouldn’t be. At the same time, Yen Dei, one of the scientists, finds that even if he thinks he has left a failed relationship behind, its ghost can still haunt him, thousands of kilometers away. Bernobich does an excellent job of making Yen Dei into a character one can sympathize with before showing that they is a very good reason that he hasn’t been able to leave his past behind him.  Bernobich’s depiction of Yen Dei and the subsequent explanation of his life, makes “A Handful of Pearls” an incredibly disturbing tale.

Bernobich uses evocative language in “Medusa at Morning,” which details a jilted woman considering her lost lover.  More a quick sketch than an actual story, the title of the work raises more questions in the readers mind than the piece answers, however the main focus here is Bernobich’s excellent use of imagery.

While the collection began with a pseudo-Renaissance piece, it ends with a pseudo-Victorian story with “Air and Angels.” Told from the point of Stephen Eliot, a gentleman of leisure who finds himself thrust into the company of an apparently captivating woman, the story follows the strict manners of the Victorian era, as well as the odd little conceits that allowed people to live within that framework.  It is clear that there is something going on, and Stephen’s friend Gilbert Wardle wants Stephen to help find out what is happening.  Bernobich fills the story with wonderful red herrings and a denouement that is so at odds with the mores and custom of the time that it creates a strong and fitting conclusion to both the story and the collection.

Although the stories included in A Handful of Pearls run the gamut from fantasy to science fiction, all of them have an almost baroque feel to the writing.  All of Bernobich's characters have a quality of being "other," none quite reflective of humans in the early twenty-first century.  These stories provide a wonderful feel of the alien, even when relating to situations which are appropriate to the modern world.

A Handful of Pearls
Watercolors in the Rain
Medusa at Morning
Jump to Zion
Air and Angels

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