“Don’t shake your head, shadow, I’m serious.” -Sharon Berg*
Canadian author/publisher/poet Sharon Berg* prefaces her short story collection Naming the Shadows (Porcupine’s Quill 2019) with a quote by C. G. Jung: “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.”
Not everyone yearns to peer or dig deep into the darkness but for those readers who appreciate great literature and take the time to analyze the content in more detail, they shall be rewarded.
Berg never flinches from tough subjects nor sugar-coats her work. She pushes boundaries and draws attention to such inequalities and injustices as betrayal and infidelity, bullying, manipulation, torture and assault, rape and sexual deviance, the exploitation of Midgets in a freak show, street living and abuse, theft and consequences, love lost and grief, adoption and single parenting, ageism, plus the heaviness of dark secrets and confessions. These are the shadows that Berg clearly names and wants to bring to light.
As a result, many of her stories are raw and edgy; in fact, they feel so real and are so strongly written that the faint-of-heart may want to escape and never turn another page. “Trespass”, a story about lost innocence and repressed secrets, was particularly disturbing. However, if those readers persevere and continuing reading, they will notice elements of character strength and brightness that make this work and her other stories shine and stand out. For example, in the story “A Violet Light”, she wrote, “The cut glass of the vase rearranged the light beams which touched it to make coloured bars on her nightstand.” (p. 16)
Expect variety: the collection includes 11 stories (actually 9 short tales and 2 novelettes). They range from 4 to 38 pages in length. No two are alike although some characters resurface in different settings and time frames. Berg dares to mix and switch storytelling styles, demonstrating her ability to forge new frontiers and to carve her own way as an author.
Her first story begins in the 1870s and is voiced in third person through the eyes of Suzanne, the wife of French modernist painter Edouard Manet. Another was a coming-of-age story set in the summer of 1966 with four pre-teen characters. “Rappings” with its first-person point of view felt like a confessional memoir. Her novelette “A Different Sort of Wealth” was the most heartwarming work with young children developing a fondness for a neighbourhood dairy farmer who taught them about kindness and forgiveness. Her final tale ends the collection with a more contemporary banter between an aging female author and a younger male reporter.
I liked how Berg experimented with form and most of the time she succeeded. Her characters felt real and her descriptions of urban and rural settings came alive: “From Harry’s place by the door, Edwin Christopher appeared as a silhouette smudged by the thick morning mist.” (p. 49) Her opening lines pulled me into the stories “Stop pulling!” (p. 147) and her endings moved me. “These days, she understood how to control the men she allowed into her life, however briefly.” (p. 160) “And I love to give the reader a little twist at the end of every story.” (p. 164)
If I had to stretch and find a weakness in her work, I would question whether some stories like “Seeing Clearly” could have been longer. Was it a story or just a scene with two one-dimensional but opposite characters bantering back and forth? Can people’s opinions truly change?
In the story “How Many Times”, the pace of the dialogue and the action needed to be tightened to create more heightened tension between Jason and Jessica. I also wanted to know more about these characters but of course, that would be limited through the stranger’s/narrator’s point of view and maybe that is the point. What happens behind closed doors often remains a secret!
In the novelette “Jigsaw Puzzle”, the character development of the daughter was excellent. “I know now that my girl will be all right…She’s jigsawed it together.” (p. 146) Could some of the narrator’s background information be tightened or left out?
As for strengths, Berg’s proficiency as a poet enriched this collection. She used metaphor, similes, and other poetic devices to layer and deepen the symbolic threads running through her work. For example, in the first story “A Violet Light”, she wrote, “The purple velvet of violets was fringed by the green plush of their leaves, the tiny bouquet held together by a paper doily tied around with a blue ribbon.” (p. 9) The violets or posy became a motif that tugged at the evolving relationships between painter, mistress, and wife. As stated later in the story “violets had always been the lovers’ bouquet.” (p. 13)
The strongest (and my favourite) story in the book was “Rappings”, which explored the haunting relationship of the narrator/model with the artist Rory who was the narrator’s companion and absent father of their daughter. Written like a poetic stream of consciousness, it began with: “It’s time for truth telling. Confessions.” (p. 77)
Once again, Berg used mutli-layers of symbolic threads, this time emphasizing images related to fire and water plus firedogs and poltergeists to gather together deep-rooted memories and feelings. One of my favourite lines (and there are many in this story) was related to the couple’s child: “Our daughter is a red bobbin working its way across that loom now, winding memory taut between you and me. I say red bobbin because she is yours; the same auburn hair, the same pale, freckled skin. You were round crowned in beautiful curling locks of copper.” (p. 80)
The influence of art and the author’s interest in pushing creative boundaries showed up in several of the stories plus the publisher (Porcupine’s Quill) did an excellent job at producing a quality product. It’s as if the physical book were a work of art. Personally, I would have preferred a larger print size for the inside contents but the beautiful crème coloured paper appealed to both my sight and touch.
Like a coordinating ribbon on a gift parcel, the rusty-red end sheets matched the colour of the chair in the cover image. Inside the book, another puppet illustration appeared as the introductory page and the end of each story was marked with a small illustration of either floral petals or leaves.
As for the cover image, there is a stoic, almost haunting quality to this original Liana Russworm oil painting entitled “The Puppeteer”. Behold this young rebel with his tie sticking out of his vest. He may be the master of the marionette but who really holds the strings here and what is lurking behind him in the shadows? We never meet this particular puppeteer character in Berg’s collection but in the story “Turning Point”, there is a puppet reference made towards Jason, a 17-year-old who must now take on more responsibility for his actions: “Certainly somebody needs to help Jason see his own place in this mess, to help him accept that he isn’t just a puppet someone else pulls the strings for.” (p. 95)
This cover’s representation of childhood innocence, and the loss of it are also felt deeply in many of the staunch characters in the stories. As one female character revealed, “We had both lost our innocence in the past fifteen or twenty minutes. Now we had more questions than we knew what to do with. (p. 35)
Some of the characters like Rory returned like ghosts slipping in and out of a couple of the tales but in the end, it is the female characters like five-year old Elke and the matured book-buying Elke who faced the greatest challenges and demonstrated the most strength. As stated in the story “The Power of Names”, “But the strongest presence continues to hover, just out of range at the moment, waiting for Elke to use her craft and bring Paul’s story to the page.” (p. 108)
Like all great literature, this book provokes the intellectual reader to think more deeply: a collection of layered and finely-written stories that deserves to be read more than once.
*DISCLOSURE: Although I personally know the author and acknowledge that she published one of my poetry chapbooks in her role as publisher/owner of Big Pond Rumors Press, our friendship has not influenced my opinion about Naming the Shadows. I personally purchased a copy of this short story collection and treated it like any other book I have reviewed. Both strengths and weaknesses of the work are highlighted.
*from the story “Rappings” printed in Naming the Shadows/Stories (Porcupine’s Quill 2019) by Sharon Berg (p. 77). Reprinted with the author’s permission.
MARK YOUR CALENDAR (Updated):
Sharon Berg will be a 20-minute featured reader during an online Zoom meeting organized by Sheila Tucker, host of Poetry&Prose. The event, including an open mic, will be held on July 21, 2020 from 7:30 to 9 p.m. Berg will be reading from Naming the Shadows/Stories and her soon-to-be-released poetry collection Stars in the Junkyard (Cyberwit 2020). She will also briefly introduce her nonfiction book The Name Unspoken: Wandering Spirit Survival School (Big Pond Rumours Press, 2019), which won a 2020 IPPY Award. Contact Sheila at OakvillePandP (at) protonmail (dot) com to be added to the Zoom presentation.
ADDITIONAL INFORMATION ABOUT SHARON BERG AND HER BOOK:
An earlier blog feature with Berg appears here.
For the month of July, Berg will be offering a discount by paying for part of the shipping for anyone wishing to purchase a copy of her short story collection. Contact the author directly on the Naming the Shadows Facebook page for more details.