Halifax-based writer Kris Bertin has won many awards for his previous short story collection, Bad Things Happen (2016, Biblioasis) and I’m sure that Use Your Imagination! (2019, Vagrant Press*) will garner its share. Composed of seven stories spread over 200 pages, these are the type of short stories you can really get into. The book’s title is derived from the third story in the collection, which is a story within a story: a creative writing class inside a prison in which one of the rules is to “use your imagination” when constructing a story. Eric’s story, “All Halves Made Whole” about life inside is reprinted (bookended by letters from the class instructor and the prison warden). The questions arise: did Eric write the story to further his own purposes, to downplay his heinous crime and get paroled early? Were his expressions of loneliness real?
I wasn’t a stone. Maybe I could look like one if you walked by, but inside I was soft and squishy. I was a bug. I was a turtle.
I didn’t know if it was a permanent change, or if, when I was out, if I could go back to being a normal person. I was most worried about the extremes. That I would come out a husk, and that whatever softness inside me will have rotted, dried up, and blown away. Or that, once released, I will be without any defenses, and be raw and naked and frightened, the kind of person who cannot cope with one single stressful interaction without breaking down completely. The kind of person you see screaming and crying at the bank teller’s window. I was preparing for the worst.
A superb example of creative fiction, this story was one of the highlights of the collection. Each of the stories in Use Your Imagination! have a certain disquietude about them, whether it is the whispering, cancer-riddled living corpse of Luke in the introductory story “Waiting for the Heat to Break and the Cold Air and Rain to Move In” to Allan’s secret life in “The Calls” to “Missy’s Story,” an unusual story/legend/myth involving the narrator’s great-grandparents and their “adoption” of a young speechless woman found wandering naked in the snow. Details are confused and conflicting and hard to come by from her grandmother and mother. The story absorbs Shannon. She must know more; to try to understand who Missy was, where she came from. When Shannon’s mother visits her in Toronto, she takes advantage of the opportunity to know more.
I remember feeling that she looked older and smaller than I remembered, and out of place in an apartment as bare as mine. She lived in a world of carpet and quilt, a fuzzy nest of soft things, Stuffed animals and slippers and blankets. Outside it, she seemed irritated, a crab pulled naked from its shell and left naked in the sand.
When I asked about Missy, her eyes sort of glazed over, like she had begun to dream right there in my kitchen. She looked like she was returning to some familiar, comfortable place in her mind.
“Did anyone ever have a guess about where she came from?” I asked.
“No,” she said, after a moment, “No one ever found that out.”
Right away I pressed her:
“I don’t understand that part. When we lived in Dale, we knew everybody. And with Missy it was what—ninety people living there? All going to the same church, all working in the same logging camp, How is it possible that nobody knew this girl?”
My mother tilted her head and I could see that this thought had never occurred to her.
“I don’t know,” she said.
“Somebody had to know who she was.”
“I don’t know,” she repeated, even quieter this time. She was getting embarrassed, I could see, but by what I didn’t know. Maybe at never having had this thought, or just at not having any kind of answers for me. But then I saw her face change and she doubled back from where she was into stone certainty. She said:
“No one ever knew where she came from.”
A short story that spans generations, “Missy” is a classic finish to this collection, terminating in a most unexpected way.
Use Your Imagination! was my bedtime reading material, and after turning out my light, I went to sleep with what I had just read wafting through my mind, and I sought to grasp the essence of the stories Mr. Bertin had spun before I imperceptively drifted off into unconsciousness. Fans of the short story/creative fiction genre will enjoy reading Use Your Imagination!
Use Your Imagination! has been added to the 2019 longlist for “The Very Best!” Book Awards in the Fiction category.
*This review was based on an Advance Reading Copy provided by Vagrant Press in exchange for a fair review. Use Your Imagination! will be released in April 2019. You may pre-order from Amazon.ca using the link below. Please note if you choose to purchase this book through Amazon I will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. If you cannot see the Amazon ad below (if you are using an ad blocker, for instance) here is the link: https://amzn.to/2UtJHwx Thanks!