Every now and then, I run across a book that I can’t explain to other people. With books like these, the experience of reading it is more important than the plot or the characters. I still try, of course, but my attempt to talk about the book usually just ends up as a garble from a book-mad librarian. All this is a preface to Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Small Backs of Children. Even 24 hours after I finished the novel, I’m not entirely sure I know what really happened in this book. What really happened is not the important thing. Instead, the important thing is what you feel as this book swallows itself, over and over, like an ouroboros.
The book opens with an explosion. A young girl has just witnessed her family killed by a bomb. A photojournalist captures the event, then sends the film off to her editors. The editor sends the photo to the photojournalist’s ex-lover, a writer who turns out to be the center of this novel. At times, the girl and the writer seem to be living parallel lives of physical and emotional destruction. Other times, the writer sees the girl as a representation of her own stillborn daughter. A few times, the girl is a character in the writer’s novel. It’s hard to tell what’s real after a few iterations.
Though the writer is the center of the book (and the girl is sort of the center of the writer), most of the story is told from the perspectives of the writer’s family, ex-lovers, ex-husband, and the lover of the ex-husband. The only things they have in common are the writer and the fact that they all create art. When the writer suffers a mental break and goes deaf, blind, mute, and stops eating, they band together to rescue the girl from the photo in the hopes that it will bring back the writer from whatever dark place she’s gone. (All but one of the writer’s friends think this is a crazy plan.)
Throughout The Small Backs of Children, scenes and motifs repeat. The story we are told about the girl after the explosion appears, word for word, in the writer’s manuscript though there’s no way the writer could have known what happened to the girl. Because of this and other coincidences and parallels, it was really hard to tell if what I read was real or if it was taking place in the writer’s head. For some readers, knowing what actually happened is important and this book will absolutely drive them nuts. For readers who are more comfortable with ambiguity, watching the narrative flow into, around, and out of itself is fascinating. I’ve never read anything quite like it.
Intellectually, it’s interesting. Emotionally, this book packs a wallop. By the end of the book, I was devastated by what I had read. The writer and the girl are so abused by the men around them that I wondered they could even function. In addition, several of the characters have very…complex…sexual preferences. Parts of The Small Backs of Children were very hard to get through. I stuck with the book because I wanted to see how (if) the author would resolve all the tangled plot threads. That didn’t happen, because this isn’t that kind of book. Like I said: ambiguity. But it was a very interesting journey.