Archive for the ‘Camilla Grudova’ Category

Children of Paradise

December 17, 2022

“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.

The Doll’s Alphabet

February 17, 2020

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.