The Doll’s Alphabet
To open this collection is to enter an eerie, ugly-beautiful world of beige and doilies and tinned sardines and sewing machines; a world located in time somewhere between the 1950s and a post-apocalyptic Beckettian dystopia. The stories are marked, Delicatessen-style, by an extension and warping of the logic of the quotidian until it is grotesque, absurd, disturbing. This is a world fading at the edges, a world kept grimly ticking by gruelling domestic and industrial labour, and curdled by poverty. But there is also startling beauty, albeit of the decaying, musty variety. In The Doll’s Alphabet, motifs of dank, confined spaces, distorted bodies, pregnancy, anthropomorphism and antique objects pervade.
‘Waxy’, the collection’s longest story, takes place in a carnival mirror world where Women work in Factories, often with chemicals that disfigure their faces, with the sole purpose in life of attracting a Man to look after; Men study Philosophy Books and earn money by taking Exams. In ‘Agata’s Machine’, two schoolgirls in a stuffy attic become entranced, to the detriment of their health, with the holograms of a Pierrot and an angel conjured by a machine built by one of them. The protagonist of ‘Notes from a Spider’ is part-man, part-spider: elegant, refined and glamorous, but desperately lonely. However, it is impossible to sum up these outlandish, haunting stories in a few sentences, or to convey any sense of their peculiarly dense atmospheres. The worlds created are notable for their variety and consistency: the style is all Grudova’s own, and the prose shows an artfully balanced combination of economy and embellishment that is deeply satisfying to read.
On the cover, The Doll’s Alphabet is lauded as being ‘in the tradition of Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood’, and in the sense that the stories dabble in magic realism and are feminist in tone, there is a comparison to be drawn. Likewise, the collection has been compared to the cinema of David Lynch, owing to the pervasive sense of the uncanny or unheimlich that dominates it. But aesthetically, both in terms of atmosphere and visual motifs, The Doll’s Alphabet is reminiscent of nothing so much as walking around in a Louise Bourgeois art installation. It’s not for everyone, and it’s not always comfortable. But it is enchanting: intensely atmospheric (sometimes oppressively so) and highly visual.
At times, it can feel a little clunky and overstated, such as the opening story, ‘Unstitching’ – a two pager in which women learn to ‘unstitch’ herself, allowing her ‘clothes, skin and hair’ to fall from her ‘like the peeled rind of a fruit’ and revealing her ‘true self’. This inspires all the women in the town to do the same, to the horror of the men, their ‘true bodies’ resembling something between an ant and a sewing machine. The ‘feminist revolution’ described here feels dated, contrived, and heavy-handed. But to any readers who find themselves underwhelmed by the first few pages, it is worth persisting. This is a rare and rewarding reading experience, quite unlike any other.
Words: Liza Cox