BREATH AND BONES by Susann Cokal


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Another offbeat adventure from Cokal (Mirabilis, 2001), who sends a consumptive but dauntless Danish teenager across 1880s America in search of her lover.

Abandoned in infancy and raised by nuns, Famke acquires little from the convent beside tuberculosis and a well-deserved reputation as a wild child. When the devoted Sister Birgit finds her work on a farm, she prefers to run off to Copenhagen with an English painter and enjoy life as his model/mistress. Albert is as mediocre in bed as he is at the easel, but Famke is nonetheless heartbroken when he goes home to pursue artistic fame. After she learns he’s moved on to the States, Famke pretends to convert to Mormonism so that an American missionary will finance her passage there. She’s even willing to become Heber Goodhouse’s polygamous third wife, since he’ll take her to Utah and she’s read that Albert is heading west. Coughing all the way, often wearing men’s clothes, she follows Albert’s trail from whorehouse to whorehouse in Colorado, financing her travels by reworking his paintings of the establishments’ employees to reflect changes in personnel. She finally ends up in California at the Hygeia Springs Institute for Phthisis. Its wealthy founder Edouard promises to cure her TB through electrical treatments that certainly are pleasurable (think: giant vibrator) but do not assuage Famke’s longing for Albert. The lovers are finally reunited at San Francisco’s Thalia Festival House, where Famke is one of the “Living Waxworks” that enable the promoter to show near-naked women without getting arrested. The humor here is very dark, the descriptions of bodily afflictions baroque: Don’t expect a happy ending. But Cokal gives her swashbuckling heroine a spectacular send-off appropriate to her portrait of 19th-century America as a brutal but oddly liberating society, and the well-rendered secondary characters achieve slightly more satisfying ends.

Not quite as thought-provoking as the author’s debut novel, but more fun—in a kinky sort of way. An intriguing sophomore effort from a writer who definitely has her own unique voice.

Pub Date: May 15th, 2005
ISBN: 1-932961-06-2
Page count: 416pp
Publisher: Unbridled Books
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15th, 2005


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