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Berfrois: The Book

By Sylvia Warren.

Russell Bennetts, Berfrois: The Book (Dostoevsky Wannabe, 2019)

Anthologies are a strange and somewhat unreliable form. They can lack the direction that comes from a thematic collection, or the unity of voice that a single author (or translator) can provide. If not carefully edited and selected they can feel like a set of remnants that have enough merit to be published and read, but not enough to fit elsewhere. Berfrois: The Book, edited by Russell Bennetts, avoids this. It works as both as a set of short fiction and poetry that can be dipped into at random, but also as a deceptively unified selection, with the ordering giving a subtle sense of direction to the various themes that recur throughout the book.

As stated, Berfrois does not have a ‘theme’ per se. Queerness, identity (both self and that which is expected of you), and introspection are common, alongside a comparison of nature and scientific writing as a foil to mythology and faith. This could very easily result in a mess of ideas, but Bennetts has edited extremely well. For example, Laurie Stone’s Horse brings in fairgrounds and carnivals, followed by Andrea Cohen’s Too Late, and then a poem on mirrors. From there, Halldór Smith’s short story on anaerobic digestion and Kaschok’s first poem, Delve and Care give a plant/nature-voiced interlude that reflects back into fairs and circuses with her second, The Woodsman Game. However, the structure of the pieces does not take away from the individual qualities of the work as selected; the order feels more like a surprise gift for the reader who is going through sequentially.

“I hated walnuts. I hated the smell of juglone, the pungent, staining isomer that emanated from the leaves and husks…I hated cracking one open and being presented with a smoky puff of blue mould or the pale, waving heads of walnut fly larvae.”

Amy Glynn’s short story Nutshell was a standout. Unashamedly clever, the writing bounces between the clinically scientific to the confessional, from etymology and slang to historical scrotum jokes without losing the nuanced dissection of relationships that underpins the story. Weaving together everything from plant grafting to archaeology, it is an astonishingly rich piece of writing that is enough of a reason to pick up the anthology on its own. ‘Confessional’ as a descriptor can be inherently gendered as feminine – perhaps because the male experience is considered more universal – but I mean the word in its simplest form.
Mythology and science also come together in Sharon Mesmer’s As the Lowly Janitor I Was Not Allowed – although the differences between natural history, ‘hard science’, and art are elegantly and wittily examined. Do Linnaean names confer authority, even if they are Chaos spp.? Do the showy exhibits designed to draw crowds:

“To get to the exit, I had to crawl backwards through a carved-out tree trunk.”

actually inform, or are they spectacles? The Natural History Museum in London has tableaux of stuffed birds alongside escalators rising through suspended metal earths, but to take these exhibits out and place them in an empty art gallery seems vulgar. Mesmer takes King Kong –grotesquery packaged as marvelling at the natural world – and shows it as an empty gesture. Similarly, Hawa Allan’s series of poems also pick up mythology, faith, and science, although I will leave formal poetry criticisms to someone more well-versed in the genre.

Published by the small indie press Dostoyevsky Wannabe, the typesetting in Berfrois is superb. It mixes art and text perfectly in to whom it may concern (Jeremy Fernando), but becomes audacious in Joseph Spece’s Drownt – making ‘found writing’ a deliberate artifice. Astra Papchristodoulou’s series of – poems? Visual text? – are a joy to look at. It’s this sense of playfulness that makes this such a unique collection. Becoming slightly ironic towards the end, E Decides to Write a Novel (Eli S. Evans) is a good dissection of the publish or perish tenure track reality, but there’s something a little knowing about the way it is written, the Jane Austen-ish conceit of removing full names, leaving — R instead. Is it a little cruel? A little too self-referential, veering on the churlish? Yes, but good writing deserves to have a space to be churlish and poke fun at itself as well as showcase the inventive and the new. As a collection, Berfrois does that brilliantly.

Sylvia Warren is an academic editor and writer. Her fiction has been published in Open Pen, Burning House Press, and The Island Review. She is a contributing editor at 3:AM Magazine and the literary features writer for OX Magazine. You can find her on Twitter @sylvswarren.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, September 5th, 2019.