The Doll's Alphabet

Camilla Grudova

Fitzcarraldo Editions 2017
A book review by Danny Yee © 2020
The stories in The Doll's Alphabet are individually distinctive, but Grudova's recurring themes and obsessions give them a collective identity. Her settings are fantastic and surreal but at the same time realistic — grimy and sordid, with indigent and insecure protagonists. The misogynist dystopia of "Waxy", for example, makes the middle class world of The Handmaid's Tale seem, if not cheerful, at least clean and refined.

There is an obsession with objects, with their variety and details. "The Sad Tale of the Sconce" follows a single object — the result of an octopus mating with a wooden mermaid bowsprit. The framing opening of "Notes From a Spider" is:

"These notes were found in a leather binder, written on loose-leaf paper of good quality. The binder was stuffed in an old trunk, underneath a moth-eaten fox fur, small black records, many broken needles, tattered bits of sewn cloth and empty glass medicinal bottles, in a condemned building, the last of many to be torn down to make way for modern and sanitary housing."

And "Hungarian Sprats" contains whole paragraphs that are just lists of objects, with the story around those providing the context to make those meaningful and engaging.

This is all pretty dark, if not actually black, sometimes enough that it verges on horror, most obviously in "Agata's Machine", in which two school-girls conjure a pantomime character and an angel in an attic. But this is leavened by a strangely and persistently positive mood: Grudova's characters never falter and simply keep on going, even if they are made of wood or have eight legs.

There's far more to Grudova's stories than these few comments can convey: they are intensely unsettling and have stayed with me months after I read them.

April 2020

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%T The Doll's Alphabet
%A Grudova, Camilla
%I Fitzcarraldo Editions
%D 2017
%O paperback
%G ISBN-13 9781910695371
%P 182pp