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Berit Ellingsen

Berit Ellingsen's stories have or will appear in SmokeLong Quarterly, elimae, Metazen, decomP, Unstuck and other literary journals. Her novel, The Empty City, is a story about silence.

Blurbs

"Infectious, once you open this book, you will not be able to close it again until the pages are all read, maybe memorised."

– Edward J. Rathke

"Full of surprise yet as satisfying and balanced as a well-planned meal."

– Christopher Allen

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Beneath the Liquid Skin

A Zen Koan in Luscious Autumn Shades

03/15/13

The 23 stories in Beneath the Liquid Skin offer a balanced mix of longer fiction and flash, with many of the stories weighing in at two or three pages. Berit Ellingsen combines elements of the universe, the self, folk tales, history, nonduality, and classical literature, which work together in alchemical synergy to produce gold. The author’s background as a science writer informs many of the pieces, but none are weighted with jargon. I never know where her stories will take me next, but I’m always pleased with the destination.

Ellingsen shines at packing punch with brevity in her flash pieces. "Hostage Situation," the shortest story in the book, condenses timeless social commentary with a dash of humour into just a few lines. Prose poem "Sliding" reads like a zen koan in luscious autumn shades.

A personal favourite, "Sovetskoye Shampanskoye" is a spy story-by-numbers. Within the confines of three pages, the author tells the tale of half of a man’s life, framing it within the wider universe in which the man’s smaller story plays out. The tale proceeds at a measured pace like a documentary filmed through a neutral lens. Outdoor environments and indoor architectures all are important details within the man’s experience, but the external and the internal also meld to form a greater whole. Ellingsen’s lens zooms in on the main character and pulls out for long shots. This is perhaps the first spy-story ever told from a nondual perspective.

Some of the stories are non-plot-driven vignettes, mindful meditations and ponderings inhabiting a fuzzy borderland between prose and poetry, yet they do have subtle plots, with outcomes, futures and pasts implied. The haunting "Sexual Dimorphism – A Nightmare Transcribed from Sanskrit," with its references to both Hindu mythology and Japanese film, has a rhythmic feel to its short verses. "Crane Legs" is a light-hearted piece that begins like a review of a TV show, but the painterly language turns it into a prose poem. The sudden ending leaves the reader with both the gut reaction of the (re)viewer and a clear aural and visual image of the show. The more serious "Polaris" takes a chilling look at exploitation, perceived lack, and doing things for all the wrong reasons.

The dream-like elements of some of the pieces conjure Borges or Kafka at times. "The Love Decay Has for the Living," one of the longer stories, opens like a waking from a nightmare, the line between the dream and real life unclear. The tale shape-shifts between humour and horror, while borrowing lightly from Marguerite Duras’ The Lover. It delves into the balancing act of give-and-take in a relationship, and the need for nourishment on both a physical and philosophical level.

The beautiful folk tale-like "The Tale that Wrote Itself," the longest story in the book, questions the possibility of altering the course of reality. "Still Life of Hypnos" is rich with references to Greek mythology and a surreal procession of decaying flora and fauna. "The Astronomer and the King," a speculative fiction vignette, revolves around a real historical figure who served as both astronomer and astrologer to Louis XIV. The tale addresses the age-old search for the reasons for human suffering and for the existence of a god.

With its rich, evocative descriptions, "A June Defection" is one of my favourites. Set in natural surroundings that are at once beautiful and oppressive, this is a story about people doing what they must to escape. The writing in "Down the River" is rich with sensory details, the adrenaline rush of gaming and the need to be the best.  Stendhal Syndrome, a whimsical imagining of a character suffering the strange and disputed tourist disease of the same name, made me laugh out loud.

"In All the Best Places, Lightning Strikes Twice" is a bizarre tale that offers a wry look at some of the unfortunate consequences of monoculture. Not all of Ellingsen’s stories are surreal. The very realistic "Autumn Story" takes a critical look at food safety, questionable production practices and how our business and purchase choices affect the quality of life for ourselves, our livestock and pets. Many of Ellingsen’s stories deal with environmental, economic, ethical and social issues, but she deftly tempers the heavier topics with light or wry humour without softening the punch.

Boyfriend and Shark, a twisty tale tinged with both humour and melancholy, ponders the way we hold onto things, and the way attachment can cause us to hold back or imprison others, be they human or animal.

While the philosophy of nonduality informs many of the stories in the collection indirectly, it comes to the forefront in the final three. Characters and situations from Ellingsen’s first book, The Empty City, return in "From Inside His Sleep." Reminiscent of a Kundalini awakening, main character Yukihiro struggles with lucid dreams.

Science meets silence in the far north in The White. The most overtly nondual story, it raises questions about the nature of awareness and being. “There is no way to argue with the present. You can only be here,” and “Everywhere is here.”

"Anthropocene" also combines science and nonduality. The last lines of the story and the book leave us with a new beginning and hope in the face of hopelessness. It is in this story that we discover the heart of the book’s title, and in the final lines that Ellingsen puts forth the immutable beauty of the universe, regardless of how ugly the situation may get.

While most of the stories in Beneath the Liquid Skin are very short, they condense whole worlds, some fantastic and some quite plausible, into polished gems. Ellingsen’s writing invites a new way of reading and thinking about fiction, but her style and voice keep the stories from becoming mired in obscurity. Though I had read most of these stories before, (all but three have appeared previously), it was a pleasure to read them again and to have them all in one place. Best of all, I like being able to pick out a story to read according to my mood, like a chocolate truffle from this gourmet box.

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