A grieving mother becomes obsessed with a famous photograph of a child fleeing a war zone.
Yuknavitch (Dora: A Headcase, 2012, etc.) made an impression with her transgressive memoir The Chronology of Water, and her new novel features similar plot points and themes. The primary narrator (all except one of the characters are unnamed) is a bisexual writer, a recovering heroin addict, a wife, the mother of a dead daughter and a “strange and alive boy.” She has become fixated on the subject of a photograph from an Eastern European conflict that portrays a young girl running away from the explosion that destroyed her home and killed her family. In recounting her life and art, the writer loosely describes a group of friends and family that includes her brother, the playwright; her husband, the filmmaker; her former lover the combat photojournalist; a deeply damaged performance artist; and her best friend, a fiercely ambisexual poet. None of these characters is particularly interesting, and they merely serve as players in the writer’s ruminations on art and the violent, sexually charged sections that follow. When the writer collapses and is hospitalized, presumably from the weight of her grief, the poet becomes convinced they need to travel overseas to find the girl in the photo and bring her to safety. The narrative largely collapses into literary experimentalism at this point, with chapters posed as screenplays, fragmented imagery, poetry, minimalism, and white space substituted for storytelling. This isn’t necessarily a negative—Yuknavitch is a gifted writer whose dizzying passages are often as compelling as they are grotesque. But it’s not a pretty story, and the novel’s affected musings on the nature of art, gratuitous sexual excesses, and casual violence may overpower the grace of its words for some readers.
Patricia Highsmith by way of Kathy Acker in a highbrow thriller that says as much about its writer as its story.