Children of Paradise

“Camilla Grudova lives in Scotland where she works as an usher in an old cinema,” according to The White Review, where her story ‘Agata’s Machine’ was published in 2015. Two years later it was one of a number of vivid, original, and often disturbing stories collected in The Doll’s Alphabet, ensuring that her first novel would be anticipated with some excitement. Children of Paradise, about the experiences of an usher who has “just arrived in the city, and in the country… and needed a job” which she acquires at the Paradise cinema, “the oldest running cinema here,” is that novel. One can only hope it is not entirely autobiographical.

The novel can be divided into two parts. In the first the narrator – who calls herself ‘Holly’ (to disguise a name that would betray her foreign origins?) – begins her job at the Paradise where she is initially ignored by the other staff until eventually being accepted into their cinephilic clique. The key word here is ‘eccentric’, which covers the staff, the customers, and the cinema itself. In the second part, the cinema is acquired by a chain, necessitating conformity, the very antithesis of the Paradise’s spirit. In neither part does the cinema seem an attractive place to work or visit. In its first incarnation it is ramshackle and run down, but not in a homely, rustic fashion – Grudova’s descriptions are such we can almost smell the damp and rot on the page:

“The ceiling was curved and covered in cracks: water satins and plaster mouldings of couples kissing, perhaps not quite human… Part of the ceiling, near the front row seats, was patched up with what looked like tape and plastic bags.”

Grudova is adept at inserting initially unobtrusive adjectives to cumulative effect: the coke Holly drinks is “tepid”, the palm plants are “dusty”, the light from the chandelier is “weak”, even the cleaning supplies are “crusty”. Her images are more noticeable – for example the pale pink tickets “like tiny, tattooed fingers” – and together they present the Paradise as the antithesis of its name. The cinema, in turn, is personified in Iris – initially regarded as a lonely old woman likely be homeless by Holly, she tuners out to be the paradise’s owner:

“She had the dirty ruined smile of a former child star, lipstick childishly drawn on, and was wearing an odd assemblage of clothes: a dirty black coat, with a t-shirt underneath, a long floral skirt that ended somewhere around her mid-calf and looked heavy with filth, bare legs, frilly socks on swollen feet stuffed into slippers.”

At first the other staff members ignore Holly, later telling her, “I didn’t think you would last a week – the girl before you, she lasted five days then was put in hospital for a mental breakdown.” Eventually she is accepted into their social life, which largely consists of watching films, and she is soon sleeping with Paolo, often in the cinema where “I always grabbed a box of popcorn to catch Paolo’s semen as I pulled myself away…”

Everything changes when Iris dies, and the Paradise is taken over by the CinemaTown chain. The cinema is refurbished (though not the screen indicating that the films themselves are now less important), uniforms are required, and staff members begin to leave if they are not fired first. Andrew is the chain’s representative, making sure staff are always busy and insisting on fire drills and team building. The novel becomes, in part, a satire of corporate takeover, but it still retains a gothic edge. The cinema floods with sewage water. The popcorn machine explodes, injuring Lydia:

“The skin up Lydia’s right arm to her neck was red and crusty brown, stuck with half-popped kernels, some of them black.”

Worse is soon to follow.

Children of Paradise is well-written and often entertains in a darkly humorous way, but it feels disappointing in comparison with the best of the stories in The Doll’s Alphabet, as if Grudova’s imagination was being curtailed by the autobiographical nature of the setting. It doesn’t quite work as a satire of corporate conformity as the Paradise seems just as unpleasant before as after the takeover. For all their eccentricities, the characters seem flat, even the narrator – who lacks both a past and a future. (I’m sure this is intentional, the narrator being an ‘audience’, the other characters ‘on screen’ – the first staff member Holly sees is “whitish grey like he had just walked out of a silent film” – but it leaves the reader out in the cold). The quirk of naming each chapter after a film soon wears thin as it does not seem to serve any purpose. In the end, this feels more like a great idea for a novel than a great novel.


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8 Responses to “Children of Paradise”

  1. Lisa Hill Says:

    It’s a shame the novel doesn’t quite work, it’s an interesting concept for a story.

  2. Max Cairnduff Says:

    It sounds like it might have worked better at short story length, though maybe there’d be too much to capture in that format.

    The cover seems a reference to the poster for the Soviet experimental film Man with a Movie Camera.

  3. JacquiWine Says:

    Ah, that’s a pity. Still, I’m keen to read this one at some point as the setting really appeals.

  4. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    It does indeed sound interesting, Grant, so it’s a shame the novel doesn’t really work. If it *is* autobiographical, I’m not sure I would have liked to work there!

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