Okay. Before I begin, let me just say something: this is not going to be your typical sort of traditional book review. It’s not going to be like most other reviews, in which you get a précis of the book’s plot, and a bunch of reasons why the reader liked or disliked it. I mean, I guess I’ll do all that, out of courtesy for other, potential readers or whatever, but really this is less a review of the book and more an expression of love and gratitude to its author, Lidia Yuknavitch.
Because here’s the thing about Lidia Yuknavitch: she is the real deal. And her book, The Small Backs of Children is real. So real, in fact, that you won’t quite know how to handle it. By that I mean, literally, you won’t know how to handle it. You’ll be reading it, holding it in your hands, eyes moving across the page, and suddenly you’ll just drop it—as if the book’s beautiful red dust jacket is actually aflame. As if the words are burning holes in your eyes. As if, for the first time in God knows how long, you’re feeling something. Something real. You’ll drop the book, put your hands over your eyes, and go, “Fuck. FUCK! So this is what it’s like… Well, shit. It’s been a while.”
But wait. Before I go on, let me just do some of that book-reviewy stuff. To give you a bit of context. A bit of background. You see, Lidia Yuknavitch first came to my attention through Chuck Palahniuk and Litreactor.com—the online writing community where Yuknavitch sometimes teaches. Her book, The Chronology of Water, which I read in 2013, is a memoir, but it is a memoir like no other. Terrifyingly honest, fearlessly inventive, and soul-stirringly beautiful, it will leave you awe-struck and inspired in equal measure. Her latest work, The Small Backs of Children, somehow ups the ante even further. It revisits many of the same themes as Water—grief, longing, love, sex, death, and art—only this time in the form of a novel. Again, though, it isn’t really a novel in the traditional sense. I mean, it is a novel, but it’s not fiction—or, if it is, it’s truer than any autobiography or “factual” account I’ve ever read…
More reviewy stuff: the plot of this story revolves around a young girl, caught on camera somewhere in Eastern Europe by an American photographer, flying through the air as her home explodes behind her. The photograph of the girl eventually reaches the home of a writer, whose own daughter was born dead, several years earlier. The writer becomes so concerned with the plight of this orphaned girl that she ends up in hospital. The story then takes the form of a quest, led by the writer’s film-maker husband, to try and help her out of this pit of despair. Aiding the husband in this quest are various other artists—a poet, a painter, a performance artist, and a playwright—each of whom has their own, unique connection with the writer, and their own tale to tell, of pain and struggle and love.
The Small Backs of Children is brilliantly plotted—complex, tightly wound, and superbly structured—but that’s not why I loved it, or why you should read it. In fact, I happen to know that Lidia Yuknavitch doesn’t care all that much about plot. She doesn’t really care about characters, either—those boring tropes. Narrators, meanwhile, she distrusts entirely. “Chickenshits” she calls them, early on in this book. No. What she cares about are real people. Accordingly, the characters in this book are all real people. Not based on real people, you understand, but actual, living, breathing, bleeding, shitting, fucking, crying, dying, sad, disgusting, horny, heart-broken, selfish, loving people.
Still not convinced? Okay, well, the other thing that Yuknavitch cares about—and cares about deeply— is language. Language and art. Language as art. Art as language. The language of sex. Of violence. Of the self. Oh, yes. It’s there in every chapter. Every paragraph, every sentence. The Small Backs of Children exults in language—it’s like a force of nature; a waterfall, or an avalanche, charging down the side of a mountain, colossal and unrepentant. At the same time, though, Yuknavitch acknowledges the limits of language, its inadequacies in certain situations. Do not let language remove you from the experience, she seems to be saying, at more than one point.
“… the body is a metaphor for all experience. A woman’s body more than any other. Like language, its beautiful but weaker sister. Look at this poem. This painting. Look at these photographs. The body doesn’t lie.”
Really, that should be enough. To convince you to read this book, I mean. There are many, many more reasons why you should—too many to mention here in this relatively short, sometimes rambling review, which, I admit, gets a little over-zealous at times. But read it you must, because writing this good—this fearless, this life-affirming, this real—well… it just doesn’t happen that often these days. When it does, as it does in the case of The Small Backs of Children, you must grab it and cherish it and be eternally fucking grateful.
You can read about Lidia’s works on Goodreads. (Caution: will definitely contain spoilers.)
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