Vessel and Solsvart by Berit Ellingsen
Snuggly Books, 2017
Berit Ellingsen’s Vessel and Solsvart is a collection of five short, dark fairy tales, full of richly imaginative story weaving, and beautifully poetic language. Each story has a slightly different tone, a different feel, but all share a sense of the magical, the bizarre, or the straight up weird.
The collection opens with the titular “Vessel and Solsvart.” The story of the decomposing corpse, Vessel, and his companion, Solsvart, a bird, on their journey across a dead world to prevent the sun from rising and destroying everything in fire. It has the feel of some sort of bizarre Beckett-like journey, with Vessel as Molloy wandering the scorched earth. Together the two companions make their way through a series of strange cities (stone, trees, reeds, tar), encountering bizarre sights and a world of ruin and abandonment.
Their journey together is described in such vivid, rich language:
The horizon is a wound at the edge of the world. Between the red gash and the lid of clouds rises an enormous inflamed orb that breathes long tongues of conflagration into the void. The heat is like a thousand fires burning.
The conclusion to this tale cleverly ties together several moments from the story in a way that is so weird, it is genuinely like something from ancient myth.
The common thread between the stories in this collection could be interpreted as death, or the attempt to move beyond it, to control or usurp it. As in “Among the Living and the Dead,” where a doctor struggles to treat a patient, a kind of feudal lord with a secret, and whose people gather and threaten at the gates. Or “Apotheosis,” which equates immortality with death, and describes a character becoming death, controlling and inhabiting it. Even in the title story itself, our characters are on a quest to prevent the death of the world, even though they are dead themselves. They must move beyond death. Overpower it.
In the final story, “Summer Dusk, Winter Moon,” this theme continues, as the heroic character of Summer Dusk is resurrected by his people to once again defend them from a terrible monster that is consuming their livestock and eventually people and towns. This story has the feel of a Beowulf about it. A great hero called upon to do battle with a horrifying creature that terrorises the land. However, in this tale, the hero leaves his people, and instead settles in a dark wood, becoming Winter Moon: cold and distant from his people, no matter how much they beg him to help.
And the idea of overcoming death is not only in the central conceit of resurrecting Summer Dusk. It is found also in the story’s conclusion, a resolution that seems to suggest, as do several other stories in the collection, that seeking to dominate or overcome death is a fruitless quest:
Our shrieks sound like meteors tearing through the atmosphere, like demons in the ancient temple plays. Those plays always end with the protagonist renouncing their former lives, or with death, never anything in between. Now I know why.
Vessel and Solsvart is a tight, concise collection, and each story has a powerful imaginative depth. More than the usual short fiction about relationships, or existential ennui, these five stories soar into rich, compelling worlds, in particular the opening and closing pieces, which really do what great fiction should: transport you away to another place. Despite their brevity, these stories feel alive and lived in, the characters, the narrators, feel fully realized and their voices unique. All this and with a thematic link, intended or not, that left this reviewer re-reading and thinking about them after the book had been put down.