“The Small Backs of Children” is like nothing I’ve ever read. It is a mesmerizing novel about art, war, love, sex, violence and devastating emotional loss that earned Portland author Lidia Yuknavitch double honors at the 2016 Oregon Book Awards — the Ken Kesey Award For Fiction and the Readers Choice Award.
I’d heard of Yuknavitch from a couple of writer friends, but I had no inkling of what I was in for when I settled down to read the novel during a recent vacation. It’s been several weeks now since I devoured the book and still I find it difficult to find the right words to describe it.
Haunting? Disturbing? Provocative? Yes, it’s all of those.
It’s also bold, ingenious and riveting, with a plot that revolves around a young girl, scenes that bounce between Europe and the United States, dialogue that crackles, and a cast of characters who remain nameless throughout the book. Instead, they are referred to simply by their roles as artists — The Poet, The Filmmaker, The Writer, The Photographer, The Playwright, The Painter, The Performance Artist.
The story begins one winter night in Eastern Europe, when a young girl, a war orphan, comes upon a wolf caught in a metal trap. By the light of the moon, the animal chews its leg off to free itself and runs away. Without thinking, the girl squats over the severed limb and urinates on the blood and snow, a steam cloud rising as the relief of rising heat warms her skin.
“This is how the sexuality of a girl is formed — an image at a time — against white; taboo, thoughtless, corporeal,” Yuknavitch writes.
“She thinks: I do not want to die, but my life will always be like this — wounded and animal, lurching against white.”
Wow. With an opening like that, I was hooked.
The girl is central to the narrative, but hardly a singular figure, as the plot pulls in the community of artists, one-by-one, to her story.
The Photographer, on assignment in a war zone in a nameless Eastern European country, happens upon the girl and her family running from a house when a blast obliterates the mother, father and brother and propels the child toward the camera, her hair lifting, her arms lifted up and out, her face glowing from the explosion. The Photographer captures the shot and wins prizes and international fame, but feels a void.
“What about her?” The Writer asks her best friend. “What became of her? How could you leave her to fate?”
It is a question that gets at the moral conflict between professional detachment and personal compassion, and The Writer, having delivered a stillborn daughter herself and now battling depression, becomes obsessed with learning what happened to the girl.
Worried by her fragile health, The Writer’s friends hatch a wild plot. They vow to find the girl — despite not knowing her name or where she lives — and bring her to the United States.
With each chapter, Yuknavitch introduces us to a member of that artistic community, including The Writer’s filmmaker husband, her playwright brother, a bisexual dominatrix poet, a performance artist, and her ex-husband, an egotistical painter who is known for excess when it comes to drugs, alcohol and sex.
The author holds back nothing with language or plot, creating vivid scenes around sex and violence that leap off the page and burn into your memory. Yuknavitch experiments with form and voice, and even writes five endings to the novel. It’s an amazing piece of work that leaves me wanting to know more about this Portland writer.
A self-proclaimed misfit, Yuknavitch grew up in an abusive home, won a college scholarship to swim for the University of Texas, got caught up in drugs and alcohol and lost the scholarship. She’s had three marriages, lost a daughter at birth, dropped out of college twice and spent some time homeless. Somehow she found her voice, followed her own path, re-enrolled in school and eventually earned a Ph.D in English Literature from the University of Oregon. She now teaches in the Portland area.
Yuknavitch delivered a 2016 TED Talk on her journey from misfit to writer that has garnered nearly 2.5 million views. No doubt I’ll be reading more of her work.