Kate Bernheimer, The Complete Tales of Ketzia Gold (Fiction Collective 2, 2001)

A friend told me the other day, "Sometimes, when something is going wrong in your life, it really doesn't help to have your internal mother tell you to remember all the starving children in Asia who would love to have your brussel sprouts. Sometimes you wish your struggles would be significant just because they're yours." Or, to be more literary about it, "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation."

Ketzia Gold, unlike many characters in urban fantasies (such as those by Charles de Lint), is not horribly abused as a child; she doesn't take to the streets; she has plenty of brussel sprouts. Instead, like many of us, she has simply struggled all her life in a world that doesn't quite make sense. As a very small girl, she is mostly cheerful about that struggle -- if often confused. After all, for small children everything about the world is confusing at first. But as she grows older, the confusion remains and becomes more painful. What do people want? What do her parents, her sister, men, her husband, want from her? Why can't she seem to give them what they want? And when she does, why doesn't it make them happy? And why does she find herself so unhappy and empty in return?

Many good writers have made tear-worthy tales with quietly significant endings out of such struggles. Consider Virginia Woolf, Ibsen, even the older "comedies of manners" of Jane Austen. Kate Bernheimer could have chosen such writers for her mentors and models. She certainly has a writing style that is strong, graceful and vivid enough to carry it off. However, in The Complete Tales of Ketzia Gold, Bernheimer takes another road, far less travelled, with a queerer and more uncertain destination. Like Ursula Le Guin does in Searoad (and in any number of short stories), Bernheimer holds myths and fairy tales up in front of Ketzia's experiences one at a time, like shards of old, brilliantly-colored stained glass. Squinting through them, we, the readers, see something altogether rich and strange.

Consider perhaps the most vivid example. Ketzia marries. At first, it's an uneventful, easy marriage. "But on our first anniversary," she says, "Adam gave me a huge string of keys. 'These are the keys to all the rooms of my house,' he said. 'But do not open the tiny closet at the end of this hallway, ok?'" Of course, like Bluebeard's wife, Ketzia promises to heed Adam's request. But eventually, she does open the door. And what does she find? Not the severed heads of the ex-wives from the fairy tale, but something just as significant to her: mementos from Adam's past relationships with women, things he's kept, pictures and love tokens. And as she opens the "forbidden door" again and again over time, she sees that more tokens are added. Adam's collection of women keeps growing. Like Bluebeard's wife, Ketzia knows she's in danger. She senses that her husband has the power to destroy her.

Through the wavy, unevenly glowing colors of the old, old tale, Ketzia's attempts to first hide from, then accommodate, then escape her husband take on a certain numinous significance. Her quiet desperation leads her to bizarre actions, but those actions feel bizarre in the way that fairy tales are bizarre. They have their own inner coherence. By accepting fairy tale reason, Ketzia is able to cohere herself, and to discover a quiet place within the world's confusion. The confusion remains, but like the child she began as -- and never quite grew out of -- she is able to find her way through it with a handful of stories as her oriflammes and guides.

In The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, Volume Fifteen, Terri Windling calls The Complete Tales of Ketzia Gold "a marvelous novel with a fractured, prismatic structure that uses fairy tales and Jewish folktales to illuminate what could be called a postmodern coming-of-age story." The book has also been named a finalist for the Oregon Book Awards.

[Grey Walker]