Book review: The Doll’s Alphabet by Camilla Grudova

 “Edward did not cry during his own funeral, but blinked solemnly. His glasses were folded and placed in his jacket collar, but he did not really need them, he could see perfectly fine.”

This is a short review of my last bus book, The Doll’s Alphabet by Camilla Grudova (Fitzcarraldo ed. 2017). It is a collection of stories that successfully toe the line between the hauntingly strange and downright silly, with a suite of recurring motifs including dolls, spontaneous childbirth (met with cold objectivity), feminism, sewing/sewing machines, self-absorbed eccentrics, scissors, and fish. The first few stories were very exciting at the beginning, but soon petered off (Unstitching, and The Mouse Queen). However, the following tales were far more consistent.

My favourites from the collection are The Mouse Queen (the first half, with the delightfully eccentric Peter), The Gothic Society, Waxy (a brilliantly creative story about a dystopian future where women only care for men, who obtain money from ‘exams’–gets increasingly disturbing), The Mermaid, Agata’s machine (Agata was a fascinating character, and the story itself was always engrossing–would make a great animated film), The Moth Emporium, and Notes from a spider.

The feminism employed could be rather stark, and a little old fashioned (men depicted as useless and cold, always a little hollow), but arguably there is already a long history of woman depicted as inferior, (or worse, a paragon of virtue) in literature, so such work is warranted to right the balance, etc (though still a little sad, if truly believed). The men are almost always quite simple and selfish creatures (though the female protagonists can also be quite cold and self-involved, to be fair), that are either nasty and interesting (Peter in The Mouse Queen), or nice and physically small/weak and childlike (as in Waxy and Rhinoceros). This was certainly true of men in Unstitching, in which they had “no ‘true secret’ selves inside, just what is taught and known.” That said, it was a ‘nasty’ male character from The Mouse Queen, the dastardly, otter-eyed Peter, that will be one of the few that stay with me (along with the equally eccentric Agata of Agata’s machine). A grave-digging, Latin-spurting, organ-playing eccentric with “slicked back hair like a young Samuel Beckett;” Peter reminds me of the caricature of Lawrence Durrell in My Family and other animals, with a healthy dose of Bertram Flusser from Indignation. It was only the second half of The Mouse Queen (post-Peter) that was a little weak.

“Neither of us had twins in our families. It was the Latin that did it, Peter said, did I have any dreams of swans or bearded gods visiting me? He acted like I had betrayed him in a mythological manner.”

Overall, this was a very interesting read, I was completely absorbed by the offspring of Grudova’s darkly twisted imagination, and look forward to her future published work. However, I don’t think it is as consistent, original and profound as last year’s instant classic, Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett (perhaps an unfair comparison). Nevertheless, this will almost certainly be considered one of the best works of fiction to come out of 2017. Definitely worth your time. Fitzcarraldo, you’ve done it again!

Nightmare Dolls Barbie

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