From a distance

The short stories in Michelle Berry’s collection, I Still Don’t Even Know You, present the same kind of perspective on people that you get by watching them at night under the glare of a street lamp. The light renders them alien to you regardless of whether you’ve seen them every day for the last 10 years or just on the 10 minute walk to the bus stop.

In Berry’s aptly titled third story collection, a character is faced with having the equilibrium of how they relate to people forever disturbed. Although the stories do touch on big events such as childbirth and death, the suspense comes from how these things impact interpersonal relationships, not the other way around. Berry’s narrative style effortlessly switches between protagonists like a camera lens, close enough to observe sweat and green lipstick stains, but wide enough to appreciate your place as a voyeur in the intimate details of their life.

It’s this distance which characterizes Berry’s work, where you can see the characters critically without ever fully being pulled into identifying with them. For me, this made for a richer reading experience than I usually get from writing that relies on alienation. However, this style also walks the line between being compelling, charming and almost allegorical, to being clinical, cold and even mean-spirited. Where each story falls on the spectrum is as much a matter of personal taste or mood as anything else.

The prize-winning story “Mary-Lou Gets Married” is not only by far the best piece in the book, but an example of Berry’s style at its best. In the story a man comes back to his hometown to attend the shotgun wedding of his long-time sweetheart to another man. Somewhere between him showing up to the ceremony in a green taffeta dress and matching lipstick, his thirty-two year old sister’s affair with her seventy-eight year old pharmacy boss, the bride’s water breaking and just a little more drama, everything resolves itself in a thoroughly unconventional yet satisfying happy ending. Since you don’t identify exclusively with any one character, it’s possible to be charmed by them while still remaining conscious of their flaws and eccentricities.

Yet it’s this distance which also marks my biggest problem with both the writing style and the book. With that kind of layer of remove established between reader and protagonists, I could like the characters, maybe even love them, but there was a limit to how deeply it was possible for the stories to affect me. So even though it was quirky, compelling and sometimes even funny, I doubt that it will be one that stays with me, though I will definitely re-read it and recommend it to friends.

On the whole, it felt like it wasn’t a case where the writer or publisher took a lot of risks. Like most books put out by Turnstone Press, the volume is visually beautiful and well-crafted. However, it also seemed like a very safe book to put out. Many of the stories have been previously published in Canadian literary magazines or anthologies, and it feels like the book is perfectly in line to win literary awards as opposed to readers.

There is no question that Berry is a technically skilled writer, the kind who was made for short stories. Her prose is simple yet suspenseful, with the words getting out of the way of the narrative. She has mastered the art of the last line, in that it both precisely summarizes the theme and leaves you profoundly unsettled. Also, the plots are perfectly contained, never lasting a word longer than they need to and always leaving enough unresolved to be interesting. That said, it didn’t take a lot of risks either stylistically or thematically and that was for me what stopped it from being outstanding.

Still, this is a strong collection of intriguing and well-crafted pieces. Whether you find Berry’s style compelling or not, this book established that she is a writer with a mature and original voice, capable of delivering stories which could be written by no one else.