The girl is an artist, and she paints with her own blood: waits for it to flow out of her and colors her canvases with red. Many necessities are in short supply in Lidia Yuknavitch’s furious and tender novel, “The Small Backs of Children” — peace, safety, protection from mortal pain — but blood is never one of them.
“Do not listen to what any society tells you about the body — the body is the metaphor for all experience. A woman’s body more than any other,” a widow tells the girl, teaching her the history of art. “The body doesn’t lie.”
The female body is omnipresent in “The Small Backs of Children,’’ an intensely corporal, potently feminist, tenaciously written work as alert to animal resilience as to the capacity for bruised and battered suffering, for desire, for ecstasy.
It is the story of a woman so bereft that her life begins to ebb, and her friends race to save her by finding the orphaned child who haunts her thoughts. It is also the story of that girl’s perseverance and maturation in a world ruled by men. But that is merely plot, about which Yuknavitch is sufficiently ambivalent that she gives her book several possible endings, and then a sort of postscript that may slightly rip your heart out.
From its first pages, when most of an Eastern European family is blown to bits in an explosion, anonymous casualties of some forgotten friction in a conflict that isn’t even a war, we know that bodies will be treated here as the vulnerable shells they are, buffeted through life — quite possibly ushered out of it — on nothing better than chance. In a violent world, the body shows the damage that the spirit absorbs unseen.
Chance is what happened to a baby girl, born dead to an American writer who cannot claw her way out of the pit of grief that follows. “This, reader, is a mother-daughter story,” she informs us early on, and she speaks the truth, at least about the part of the novel she shapes.
Or does she shape all of it? Hard to say. Many of these characters, mostly artists, are in the writer’s circle of family and friends. They are identified not by name but by role: her second husband, the filmmaker, such a huge improvement over homicidal-painter husband number one; her truest friend, the poet, who moonlights as a fearsome dominatrix; her brother, the playwright, barely disgusted with himself for harvesting drama from his sister’s distress; her ex-lover, the photographer, who, like the others, is always scanning the world around her for the raw material of art.
The members of this tribe echo and repeat one another, blurring boundaries of identity, slipping among the writer’s gossamer fancy, her miasmic depression, and the hardness of her flesh-and-bone life, where the women she knows are vividly human, turgid with anger and intellect and appetite.
“I have invented hundreds of selves. Men and women,” the writer tells us, though as a narrator she’s a bit of a tease. “I have peopled the entire corpus of my experience with fictions. Who is to say they are not I? I them?”
The photographer is famous now, the winner of a life-altering prize for a picture she snapped in the right fraction of a second — the instant the Eastern European blast orphaned a little girl even as it spared her. But the writer is disquieted by what the famous photo doesn’t tell, and what the photographer didn’t pause to find out. “What became of her?” the writer asks her ex. “How could you leave her to fate?” She cannot stop imagining the story of that girl, cannot stop envisioning her own child.
What becomes of the orphaned girl is partly this: She is the artist who paints her menstrual blood onto her canvases, using her body’s resources in the service of creation.
“The Small Backs of Children” is a very different work than Siri Hustvedt’s ferocious, feminist art-world novel “The Blazing World,” but the two are kin, and it’s easy to imagine Hustvedt’s hulking rebel, Harriet Burden, taking a liking to this defiant girl, who is daring, inquisitive, and pliable enough for survival.
“I see the stories of women, but they are always stuck inside the stories of men. Why is that?” the girl wonders, reading up on art history, literature, religion, mythology.
“Where are the bodies who would break out of the story and rescue the others?” she asks. “Where are the daughters with fire in them?”
Yuknavitch has drawn us some, and now they’re ours to keep.
THE SMALL BACKS OF CHILDREN
By Lidia Yuknavitch
Harper, 224 pp., $24.99
Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.