The Small Backs of Children
“This is a novel for the bold of heart.”
The violence is fierce and proud in Lidia Yuknavitch’s new novel, The Small Backs of Children. It is inflicted upon souls, communities, relationships, bodies. It is sought out, preferred, refuted, drawn into art. It is physiological and emotional, remembered and renewed, pornography and needles, suffering and release.
It is defining.
Famously keen on physicality—on body parts, body functions, sexual perversions, sexual needs—Yuknavitch extends, in her new novel, the themes she has explored elsewhere in, for example, her memoir of abuse and addiction, The Chronology of Water.
Here the story begins with one of the most arresting scenes I’ve ever read, about a young girl in Eastern Europe who has lost her family to an “atomizing” blast. The child has stepped outside on a winter’s night. She walks in snow. She finds (her body nearly numb now, the expanse before her white on white) a wolf, “beyond beautiful, with its leg caught in a trap.” Soon the wolf is free, three legged. Soon the girl soaks its blood and “animal labor” in. Then writes Yuknavitch:
“She thinks: I do not want to die, but my life will always be like this—wounded and animal, lurching against white. She bends down and rubs her hands in the blood. She lifts her hands, her eyes, her heart to the heavens, in the space where they say god is, a god she has never known, a god she will replace with something else. Her small hands make what might look to an outsider like a prayer shape. But she is not praying.”
This child, her loss photographed a year before (that terrifying, atomizing moment), will haunt the pages to come. She will haunt the photographer who wins a prize for the picture she took of the “blast from I don’t know where (that) disintegrates the father, mother, and brother just at the edge of the girl’s body, missing her in some terrifying accident of a fraction.” She will haunt the photographer’s friend and sometimes lover, a writer who has lost a daughter of her own. She will haunt the writer’s friends and husband and ex-husband and son and brother and others, who watch the writer spiral toward death. Depression? Perhaps. Some believe the writer can be saved if the child can be found.
That is the story here. No one is named (except for the girl, deep into the story). Everyone masquerades beneath a noun—the Writer, the Photographer, the Widow, the Performance Artist, the Playwright. There are stories inside stories. Love is cruel. Sex is a weapon. Will the girl be found?
Yuknavitch often writes with great beauty and daring. Like Carole Maso, she is capable of alerting sensuality and deafening brutality. The pages blur as scenes of devastating precision yield to phantasms, as haze is pierced by light. And as the story moves forward, the novel itself breaks down—into multiple perspectives, prose poems, single lines, competing voices, even a snatch or two of a play. The fragmentation felt like a loss of momentum to this one reader (a reader who, most of the time, embraces fractions). It felt like a story spiraling away from its soul.
The white heat, the heart, remains this child.
This is a novel for the bold of heart. It is a story for readers who are willing to assemble a story out of given parts.