The plot of The Small Backs of Children (Harper, 240 pages, $24.99), by Portland indie darling Lidia Yuknavitch, is almost irrelevant. But here it is anyway: A writer gives up on life because of grief for a daughter she lost long ago at birth. She is also distressed by a photo taken by her former lover, depicting a girl flying through the air the moment an explosion destroys her house and family in Eastern Europe. To save her, the writer's friends and family decide to find the girl in the photo.
The story is clearly personal and contains a lot of horrible human behavior, including multiple instances of child rape. It's brave and important to write about rape, but also terrifying. How do you allow it to be brutal but not erotic? How do you make it visceral and still readable? It's hard to fault Yuknavitch for the route she takes in stylizing it—she imposes the awareness and sexuality of an adult artist on her young victim, who transforms her trauma into animalistic creations.
From the girl's paintings of blurry faces on wood done in her own blood, to the photography-based sexed scene, the real subject of this book is the transformative power of art. With one momentary exception, none of the characters have names. They are all "the photographer," "the writer," "the performance artist," "the painter," "the poet," "the playwright," etc. It is the depiction of a world where art is all-consuming, but there is a trade-off. Naming the characters based on the form of art they create ends up reducing them, and the implied self-importance in these artistic names also alienates the reader. Where is "the plumber" in all this?
In fact, alienation is one of the main things I felt throughout this book. As in Yuknavitch's previous works (The Chronology of Water, Dora: A Headcase), the prose was all about the prose, sometimes at the expense of communicating meaning: "The widow teaches the girl how to use a pad to carry the blood close to her body," she writes, "and in the months to come, the girl's and the widow's bleedings synchronize." At one point, Yuknavitch takes 10 sentences to say "he picked up a journal that was under the bed." To put it in the parlance of an MFA fiction workshop, something of which I have plenty of grim memories: It didn't work for me.
But while I really didn't like this book, I came out of it really liking Yuknavitch. People like to call her brave because she often writes about violence and sex; I wish she would write about those things in a more concrete way, with less of the flowery prose that keeps readers at a distance, but I do think she's brave. It's brave to put a book in the world that so clearly isn't for everyone. The people who love this book will absolutely love it, and if some say they're transformed by it, I'll believe them.
GO: Lidia Yuknavitch reads from The Small Backs of Children at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 800-878-7323, on Wednesday, July 8. 7:30 pm. Free.