A folkloric, allegorical tale of modern marriage, complete with shape-shifting, secret passageways and trials by fire.
The couple in this debut novel by Bell (How They Were Found: Stories, 2010) isn’t named, but the author drops strong hints that we should think of them as Adam and Eve. That's not just because we know the man’s name is two syllables and that the woman’s is three letters and palindromic, but because they are so clearly archetypes of babes in the wilderness. The two left the city for the woods after marrying, but miscarriage after miscarriage has undone their hopes for a family. All the man is left with is a “fingerling”—a fetuslike being that occupies his body and intones the occasional bit of devilish guidance. After the woman arrives with a “foundling”—actually a bear cub morphed to look like a child—the couple becomes increasingly stressed and divided by their unnatural state of being. That’s one way to look at it, anyhow: Bell cultivates a loose sense of unreality that allows the reader to make all sorts of metaphorical projections. But the novel is also meticulously designed, with a particular focus on the musicality of its sentences, and the narrative’s general arc of adventure and discovery is relatively conventional. In time, the man will lose his wife, tussle aboveground with a bear and underwater with a squid, and discover an underworld that’s a replica of the woodsy world he’s left. Some of Bell’s heavily symbolic adventuring grows too repetitive to sustain a full-length novel—there’s a reason Jorge Borges stuck with short stories—but there’s an undeniably heartfelt tone to this tale that transcends its unusual cast.
As the male character's path to redemption leaves his body increasingly ravaged, Bell’s book becomes an unflinching portrait of the struggle to keep a family intact.