Award-winning short fiction embraces quirky

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Quirky is tricky.

Marie-Helene Bertino serves up plenty of quirky in her new collection, “Safe as Houses.” The book is the winner of the 2012 Iowa Short Fiction Award, presented by University of Iowa Press and selected this year by author Jim Shepard.

The collection’s third story, “The Idea of Marcel,” is a good example of what Bertino is up to. The story features Emily and Marcel, a broken-up couple now dating others. Those others turn out to be the idea of Marcel and the idea of Emily — physical manifestations of previously unacknowledged desires.

This might sound overly conceptual, but Bertino is writing a farce, not just an experimental story

“There are disturbing psychological elements afoot tonight,” Emily says to Marcel at one point. “You can say that again,” he replies. “I just fought myself and lost.”

It’s a farce with heart, as the story explores the ways in which we might undervalue those we love, but also the ways in which we might undervalue ourselves.

Bertino has a strong sense of just how far she can carry an idea. In “North Of,” Bob Dylan joins the narrator for her family’s Thanksgiving dinner. The legendary songwriter speaks nary a word throughout the piece because, one understands, he’s a metaphor for something else. It could be a tiresome device, but Bertino produces strong dialogue for the other characters, scrambles the chronology and keeps the piece moving toward its effective ending.

At the beginning of “Sometimes You Break Their Hearts, Sometimes They Break Yours,” the narrator offers up a list of things she is good at — “I am good at eating clementines” — and things she is bad at — “I am bad at drawing straight lines.” She claims, “I am bad at telling stories.”

But “Safe as Houses” clearly demonstrates that isn’t true of Bertino herself. Embrace the quirkiness.

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