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Margaret Lives in the Basement

by Michelle Berry

The childish title doesn’t really suggest the book: subterranean murkiness there is, but the stories in Michelle Berry’s second collection are rather more flammable, forged in the brilliance of summer heatwaves. These 11 stories stick to the skin, and not always pleasantly, as characters sweat and strip down, with or without benefit of alcohol. Berry graphically evokes smells, walls smeared with tobacco smoke, corpses in the woodshed. But while we may be repelled, we read on, in the grip of the characters’ discordant realities and expectations. We brace ourselves against terrible collisions – verbal explosions, a shotgun blast. Usually, happily, we are let off lightly.

In the first story, “Fire,” two couples – one moving into the neighbourhood, the other in the meltdown of a discovered affair – come together over a platter of charred ribs. Drunk, adulterous Kelly keeps repeating, “Imagine if your house burned down.” For some of these characters conflagration flares abruptly; for others it has been smouldering for a long time. In the title story a large black woman in a basement apartment – Margaret – buys a tanning booth and rents it for $5 a half hour. Most of her clients, alas, come out overdone. Numb with her sister’s dying, Margaret is sorry, but not that sorry. Perhaps these are her sacrifices, her burnt offerings.

For such a young writer, still in her 20s, Berry shows remarkable control of her medium, walking a fine line between the comic and tragic. Her ear for dialogue is uncannily good; these seem as much one-act plays as stories – motel Ionesco, Albee under the apple tree. She experiments with point of view, shifting easily from consciousness to consciousness. Elsewhere her focus is relentlessly singular, as in “Do You Want to Be in the Movies,” in which a girl in a bus station resists the attentions of a predatory couple. Occasionally characterization resorts to caricature – lovelorn dental hygienist, slob of a husband, long- suffering wife. But generally, as in life, Berry’s men try to do what is expected – change light bulbs, protect women; women in turn try to nurture. Often they fail, stuck in tight spots and cumbersome bodies, but sometimes salvation comes unexpectedly, from improbable directions, and for this we’re grateful.


Reviewer: Maureen Garvie

Publisher: Somerville House


Price: $22.95

Page Count: 224 pp

Format: Paper

ISBN: 1- 894042-28-X

Released: Apr.

Issue Date: 1998-4

Categories: Fiction: Short