The Doll’s Alphabet

Canadian writer Camilla Grudova’s short story collection, The Doll’s Alphabet, relishes its own strangeness from the very first sentence:

“One afternoon, after finishing a cup of coffee in her living room, Greta discovered how to unstitch herself.”

The nod to Kafka is obvious – especially as she finds afterwards “the closest thing she resembled in nature was an ant” – but here the transformation is voluntary, and quickly copied by others as women discover their “unstitching consciousness.” ‘Unstitching’ is one of the shorter stories in the collection at just over two pages but it provides a warning of what is to come.

Other, even shorter, stories (‘The Gothic Society’, ‘The Doll’s Alphabet’) suffer from being little more than the sketch of an idea; even ‘Hungarian Sprats’, at six pages, reads like a extended squib (although all illustrate that Grudova, like Angela Carter, sees the humour in her gothic intensity). However, when Grudova develops her vision, in particular in what might be termed world-building stories, the results can be astonishing. The best example of this is ‘Waxy’, its scenery borrowed from post-war Europe, but its gender roles even more restrictively defined: Men succeed by passing Exams, while women, in every way subservient, work in factories. It is women, however, who must bear the blame for everything:

“If one’s Man did not do well in Exams, it was considered the woman’s fault for not providing a nurturing enough environment in which they could excel.”

(Similarly, if you are taken advantage of by someone else’s Man, “It’s always considered the woman’s fault.”) The narrator finds herself without a Man (“I felt good, but it was frowned upon to be Manless”) and eventually picks one up in a café. Paul is not what you would call a catch – he has never sat an Exam and, in fact, has no papers:

“He was missing many teeth and sometimes couldn’t control his bladder. I didn’t mind because one of the first things a girl learns in school is that every man has his own special problems, and it’s one’s duty to take care of them.”

Avoiding pregnancy is also a preoccupation of the narrator but contraception is unaffordable without Exam money; when the baby which eventually results from her relationship with Paul is born it is called Waxy as “we were too scared to name it properly”. Unfortunately, Paul’s unofficial status allows their cohabitees, Stuart and Pauline (space, we understand, is at a premium), to make demands of them: first their tobacco and tinned meat, later that Paul look after Stuart when he falls ill, and, in the end, that Paul sleep with Pauline. This story has all the tension you might expect from such claustrophobic blackmail, but it’s the accrual of detail which astounds both in the fecundity of Grudova’s imagination and the skill with which it is exercised.

‘Agata’s Machine’ is another such story, although one which takes place in a more recognisable world. Here the narrator befriends Agata, the class protégé, when they are eleven. Invited to her house, she is introduced to Agata’s invention, made out of her mother’s old sewing machine, a mason jar, a light bulb and a cigar box. Using this machine they summon tiny figures – a Pierrot in Agata’s case; and, in the narrator’s:

“…a man with white wings, wearing a striped sailor’s shirt, and wide sailor’s trousers.”

Using the machine becomes a nightly obsession, and a third figure appears whom they christen Mr Magnolia, “bald, except for a thin rim of hair like scum on a dirty bowl, and a plain, unfanciful moustache like the little plastic combs used for lice searches at school.” The narrator is eventually forbidden from visiting Agata, and the story concludes when she returns to the house many years later.

The sewing machine is the most obvious of a number of recurring images in Grudova’s work. The narrator in ‘Waxy’ works in a sewing machine factory; Greta, in ‘Unstitching’, is “the ideal form on which a sewing machine was based.” In interview, Grudova has explained:

“I love inventories and indexes; initially I wanted to include an index of mentioned objects, to give a sense of all the stories as part of one piece. And I’ve used a sewing machine since a young age. My grandmother worked as a seamstress. I find a lot of parallels between sewing and writing. It’s a process of creation, something from the imagination, and looks very much like writing to me.”

The stories in general are filled with old-fashioned objects as if the reader were browsing a downmarket antique shop – and many of them are set in shops. They also frequently reference fairy-tales, from a mermaid in which “the fish and human are blended together like tea with milk” to a male character named Wolf. For this reason some space between stories may be advisable.

Like most short story collections, there is an unevenness to The Doll’s Alphabet, though not one of tone or craft. The shorter stories, however, often amuse largely for their cleverness, but where she is at her best she delves into the heart of something dark and dangerous with an unflinching imagination.

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14 Responses to “The Doll’s Alphabet”

  1. lizzysiddal Says:

    One for the gothic wishlist, I think.

  2. Material Archive Says:

    Fitzcarraldo Editions continue to show up with interesting titles. Seems like a cool publishing venture

  3. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Love the sound of this, Grant. Most individual!

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes, quite a strong voice, particularly in the longer stories – the collection came about after Waxy was published online, I believe, and others were then written for it.

  4. heavenali Says:

    Goodness, these stories sound extraordinary and hugely inventive. I’m planning on starting another Fitzcarraldo story collection tomorrow called Dark Satellites.

  5. JacquiWine Says:

    I couldn’t help but be reminded of some of Silvina Ocampo’s short stories as I was reading your review of this. They seem to have a similar sense of the surreal and the gothic. I’m intrigued, I have to admit…

  6. Radz Pandit Says:

    I read this one a couple of years back and was hugely impressed. It made by Best of the Year list I think!

  7. hopewellslibraryoflife Says:

    Waxy sounds like Ceaușescu’s Romania.

  8. Wrapping up #fitzcarraldofortnight – Lizzy's Literary Life Says:

    […] The Doll’s Alphabet – Camilla Grudova (1st Reading) […]

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