Camilla Grudova’s story collection The Doll’s Alphabet, was published earlier this year in England, and it has already garnered comparisons to Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood, Leonora Carrington, Ben Marcus, and Franz Kafka. To this list let me add another name: George Orwell. Not the dystopian Orwell of 1984 or the allegorical Orwell of Animal Farm but the down-and-out, grubby-oilcloth Orwell of The Road to Wigan Pier and Keep the Aspidistra Flying. Grudova does mermaids and magic, but she also does moldy, dingy, scratch-and-sniff interiors that reek of cabbage and old shoes.
Several stories feature unintended pregnancies or strange births. “Every night the same thing happened,” says the narrator of “The Mouse Queen.” “I would put the twins to bed, read a while then, yawning, around 9, turn into a wolf.” This is risky business for the twins; I’m sorry to say that they don’t make it. In “Rhinoceros,” which seems to take place in the wake of an unspecified disaster, the narrator expels “a pink lump” that resembles “a tuber with the tips sliced off.” She wraps it in a towel and puts it in a porcelain jar. Eventually she throws it into the zebra cage at the zoo, while her boyfriend, Nicholas, is off drawing a wolf.
Grudova’s descriptions are crooked and revelatory. Armpits, for example, are “those pathetic, damp and silent mouths of the heart.” She is damning on the subject of relations between the sexes. In “Unstitching,” women discover how to pull their bodies apart to reveal something like a sewing machine (a recurring motif), while the men are
divided between those who “always knew there was something deceitful about women” and were therefore satisfied when they were proved right, and those who lamented “the loss of the female form.”
In “Notes from a Spider,” a man with eight legs falls in love with a sewing machine named Florence and hires seamstresses to work themselves to death treading her “beautiful iron limbs.” The title character of “Agata’s Machine” has outfitted a sewing machine with wires, regulators, a cigar box, an earpiece, and a light bulb to create a movie projector for the mind. The narrator of the story is Agata’s schoolmate, who becomes obsessed with the contraption. Agata uses it to conjure a dancing Pierrot; the narrator, an angel in a sailor shirt. But these spirits aren’t visiting from afar — they seem to come from within. When the narrator puts on the earpiece, she doesn’t hear anything. “It was more like being listened to, as if there was a piece of shivering flesh behind the plastic.”
–from the October 2017 issue of Harper’s Magazine
Christine Smallwood holds a Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University. Her reviews and essays have been published in The New Yorker, Bookforum, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, and Harper’s Magazine, where she writes the monthly “New Books” column. Her fiction has been published in The Paris Review, n+1, and Vice.