Review: Under the Poppy by Kathe Koja

Love: it’s a triangle. War: is coming. Betrayal: is inevitable. Sex: watch out for the naughty puppets.

Review by Jess Faraday

This wasn’t an easy book. I mean this in a technical sense. It wasn’t like sitting down to read a civilized story in which one is introduced to the characters, setting, and story questions in a logical, straightforward manner. It was more like being dropped into the bustling backstage of a down-at-heel foreign theatre, with no knowledge of where or when you are. No one can see or hear you. Even if they could, they have more important things to do than answer your stupid little questions. Also, time doesn’t move in a straight line, but spirals back around on itself every now and then. And there’s a war on.

In exchange, though, you are magically granted access to every character’s most intimate thoughts and memories. Never mind that most of the many, many narrators are unreliable–either hopelessly biased or out-and-out liars. Their stream-of-consciousness ramblings and your newfound telepathy are the only tools you will be allowed for the task of figuring out what actually happens. Pay attention. There will be a quiz.

While all of this may pose a problem for readers looking for something they can read with the telly on, I can guarantee that if one is willing to give the story her full attention, it’s ultimately well worth the struggle.

While reading this book, I swung back and forth between admiring the author’s daring, and cursing her for writing a story that would disintegrate in my hands if I put it down for an hour. I finally came down on the side of admiration. Once I got over my initial frustration, the structure of the story began to take shape. The book may look like a lurching, ramshackle crazy-train of images, but underneath it is highly structured to reveal the story in a precise, though nontraditional way.

And I realized, as I approached the midpoint, just how easy it would have been to write this sort of story wrong.

To save potential readers a bit of hair-pulling, I’ll lay out the basics.

Brothel keepers Decca and Rupert and puppet-master Istvan grew up together. Decca and Istvan are sister and brother. Decca loves Rupert. Rupert loves Istvan. Istvan loves his puppets–though the puppets creep out enough important people as to provide significant plot complications. Rupert and Istvan each have other admirers whose one-sided affections provide further complications. And then there’s that pesky war (the Franco-Prussian war, by the way. We’re outside of Brussels. It’s 1870. Not that it’s ever stated outright.)

Now that that’s out of the way, I can direct your attention to the unbelievably lush setting. The amount of research that has gone into it–the comparative luminosity of tallow vs. beeswax candles, for instance–is staggering. It has been said of 19th century novels that setting often takes the role of a character, and it’s definitely the case here. The story is an almost continuous sensory assault. It gets in the way sometimes, but given the choice of too much setting or not enough, I’d choose too much–especially if it is this well researched.

As for the characters–rough, conflicted, often unpleasant but ultimately unforgettable–the lack of sentimentality with which the author treats them is refreshing. Many authors blither on about how their characters “make” them write things against their better instinct. Not here. Koja’s characters, in all their leaping-off-the-page, three-dimensional glory are servants of story and circumstance, and they know their place. The author’s unsentimental treatment of her characters reminds me of that of Sarah Waters in Fingersmith. It’s a difficult thing to do when one has spent so much time walking with a set of characters. And yet it makes for a much stronger story.

To give away more than I have would do the book a grave disservice. The joy for me was more in the journey than in the resolution: watching the structure unfold, taking in the scenery, enjoying the ride. And it’s a wild ride.

People will probably love this book or hate it–possibly both. But let me just say that it would take an author of extraordinary talent to open with a scene of a woman being sodomized by a ventriloquist’s dummy and make me want to keep reading.

And Kathe Koja is that talented. Five stars.

Buy from Small Beer Press Amazon UK Amazon USA

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