Obsessive, prudish, and cold, Merry Gold lives in denial of her own condition. This seamstress—the eldest and meanest of the three Gold sisters—possesses a tarnished past and faces a bleak and lonely future. Guilty about her destructive desires and longing for innocence, her inner turmoil and explosive imagination belie a disarming honesty. The second volume in Bernheimer’s Gold family series, this novel follows Merry from her suburban childhood through design school and a whirlwind of lovers, and into a desolate adulthood. Beginning with a toy seal and ending with mushrooms, this fairy tale set in modern times creeps through cruelty and violence to its inevitable end. Reminiscent of a miniature, fragile ice sculpture, The Complete Tales of Merry Gold glistens with hard-hearted bliss. Kate Bernheimer has once again delved into the internal anguish of the Gold family to extract a magical, carefully stitched tale of strange and happy fear.
Chapter One, A Whirly-Gig Tale
Long ago I reached the end of my luck. Yet when I was a child I lay in my cradle asleep. “Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home, your house is on fire, your children alone” I played in my mind. My mother came in and said, “So you’ve gone to dreaming, my pretty? Gey schluffen. In the meantime, go down to the kitchen and wash a handful of grapes. I’ll be glad to have them when I wake up.” Then she plucked me out of the cradle, climbed in herself, and screwed her eyes shut. I crept down into the kitchen to get the grapes. Now, don’t cover your ears, but when I reached into the fridge a viper shot out and headed right for me. Leaving the green grapes untouched, I ran away very fast. (After that, my father came into the kitchen and popped grapes into his mouth, one after the other, one after the other again.) All the while, my mother slept in that crib, curled like a roly-poly into a ball. And as for me? The viper chased me and chased me, slithering fast on the ground. This went on for hours until I hid behind a maple tree, shaking mad. The viper crept slowly away. This is why, since my earliest days, I plant a whirly-gig right on my nose whenever I’m mad. It provides a very strong message to vipers and creatures that crawl close to the ground: inchworms and earthworms and seals. I’ve reached the end of my story and also my luck. Would you hand me a glassful of vodka?
“A real gem, my favorite book of the year. A novel so simple and beautiful that you forget how hard it is to pull off simple and beautiful. Bernheimer’s second novel is a great, great success.”
“Here simmers witchery: the black magic of an ominous femininity. The little match girl has cut her teeth and her smile glitters with subversion and an irresistible malevolence.”
Kate Bernheimer continues her genre-bending saga of the Gold family with The Complete Tales of Merry Gold, a sequel to her 2002 novel The Complete Tales of Ketzia Gold. Both mine fairytale motifs to tell the Gold sisters’ respective stories—Ketzia’s poetic and ruminative; Merry’s ribald and bleakly comic. Merry grows up despising the more introverted Ketzia, attends fashion school, and ends up a patternmaker for the Children’s Clothing Company: “I’m a superior maker of patterns! I’ve been promoted! This is my gift. Just so. I see forms by day; and by night, I trace pictures from fairy tale books I keep by my bed. This keeps me quiet, this makes me feel whole.” But the relief of routine is often short-lived; Merry is haunted by memories of loss. After the death of Semyon, a friend from design school, she sneaks out of his service. “I never returned to my classes,” she recalls. “And that is why, to this day, I never make friends. Not a one.” Bernheimer’s protagonist does not merely parody or appropriate fairy tales. She inhabits them, in the same way that characters in Kafka’s anti-parables inhabit parable—clinging to a style and structure that wear thin when tested against life outside the text. When the ill-fitting garment finally tears, Bernheimer exposes truths all the more unsettling for their mock fairy tale innocence. When Merry turns five, she receives a typical assortment of presents—a Baby Alive doll, a toy oven, and a toy sewing kit. Muses the narrator, “Is it really any surprise that, after as many hours as she could stand fake-baking, fake-feeding, and fake-sewing . . . Merry was bored?” Like Steven Millhauser’s Edwin Mullhouse, Merry Gold evokes childhood and its aftermath in all their often-overlooked complexity.
—Review of Contemporary Fiction