There’s nothing wrong with Pavla. Rather, there’s a problem with everyone who meets her in Marisa Silver’s Little Nothing. Pavla was born somewhere Bohemia before the First World War. The people in her small village are highly superstitious and no one knows what to make of a dwarf. For the rest of her life, people will try and transform her into what they think she ought to be. Silver tells her tale as a grittier version of a fairy tale in which elderly parents pray for a child, after which nothing goes right.
Pavla is a bright child, talented with mathematics and engineering. She is also a dwarf. Once her parents learn to love her for who she is instead of lamenting the perfect child they’d wished for, Pavla’s life is wonderful. But nothing good can last in Pavla’s world. As she gets older, her aged parents wonder what will happen to her after they die. Who will marry her, they ask. Who will give her a job? Feeling they have no other options, Pavla’s parents ask for help from a witch, doctors, and quacks until they find one who can make Pavla taller.
The cost of transformation is high, much higher than Pavla’s parents might have expected. Over and over, Pavla will be transformed by people who think they know better. Each time, her life gets worse. She will spend time in a circus, wander the woods, and be incarcerated. Her story is shadowed by Danilo’s story. Danilo was the assistant to the doctor whose “cure” worked. He has regretted it ever since. While Pavla survives her various transformations, Danilo tries to follow the woman he comes to love, though he has his own share of trials.
Little Nothing is a challenging read. Not only is it told, at times, in the vague and unreal tone of a fairy tale, it is also relentlessly grim*. There are innocents, but they keep getting caught in the machinations of other characters. Then they get caught in the edges of World War I. Even with all its darkness, I was interested in the trace of magic in Little Nothing. It was as though I was reading a story about the last days of pre-modern Eastern Europe, when there were such things as witch’s curses and werewolves. Perhaps everything went wrong for Pavla and Danilo because modern ways of thinking kept intruding and screwing up the magic.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 13 September 2016.
* I am not at all sorry for this pun.