Book Reviews

Book Review: The Small Backs of Children

I finished this novel Sunday night. One of the most satisfying reads I’ve had this year, and not because it had any kind of happy or resolved ending. It was because it set the expectation that the character’s lives went on. Separately, together, some endings, some beginnings, but it all continued and I know I was only given a glimpse.

I hate neatly packed bows on stories. I loathe the “and they lived happily ever after” endings. Even when I was a child I remember thinking what a waste of time to read a story only to be let down by an ending I knew was a lie.

Lidia Yuknavitch does everything to spit in the face of those simpleton stories, and I can never thank her enough for it.

This is her second novel, although she has other published work, and I couldn’t wait to read it because I discovered last year Dora: A Headcase. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. It has one of the most hilariously written scenes I’ve ever read. I had tears rolling down my face as I laughed  essentially reading about Viagra. Read it. If you don’t think it’s one of the funniest scenes ever, then you and I are not destined to be friends.

But back to The Small Backs of Children.

The story revolves around a prize winning picture of a girl, thrown from her home as it explodes, destroying her life and the rest of her family–the girl herself, and a group of friends/artists who are intertwined in each other’s lives, but then become intwined with the girl’s life. There are no names, and it’s written from everyone’s point of view. There are different tones, formats, and even levels of consciousness.

I love how she forces you to accept terrible things happen in the world every day and we largely ignore them. They’re not right in our face, so it’s easy to sip our lattes and pretend everything’s peachy. And in many ways, we’ll do it even when horrible things are brought to light. It’s not necessarily that we’re horrible human beings, but if we let every awful thing consume us, we’ll end up like her character the writer, unable to get out of bed, eat, and eventually in the hospital close to death. Compassion can drive us to insanity and beyond.

I also love her incredibly dark, blunt approach to sex. I felt like a prude at times while reading, but she can work in every sense to an experience that’s not vulgar (even though the acts themselves usually are) but observable and satisfies a curiosity I didn’t know I had. I’m not saying I want to go out and try any of this stuff, but reading it, I wasn’t horrified. It’s a very careful line to carry and she does it so well.

And really, an article in The New Yorker by Graham Greenwell covered the story much better than I can, so you should read it. If you’re not convinced  The Small Backs of Children is worth your time after reading the review, I can’t help you. Lidia’s writing is spectacular, in your face, and mesmerizing. She makes the underbelly of “polite society” approachable all while pointing out the hypocrisy of our rules for outcasting them in the first place. But she does it in a way that makes you smile and agree instead of rebuff and run away.

Thank you, Lidia, for a great shock to my system.

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