The Small Backs of Children by Lidia Yuknavitch was accurately described in one review as disturbing and dazzling. The former made me almost close the book a number of times, but the latter kept me reading. An early and provocative Woolf sighting kept me going too.
A photographer in war-torn Eastern Europe stuns the world with an image of a girl fleeing an explosion that kills her family and destroys her home. The novel’s aura of brutality isn’t just in the war, however; it’s in the response to the photo in the lives of the photographer and her friends in the U.S.
Yuknavitch tells her story through different points of view, the “voices,” all unnamed. The Writer begins her monologue:
“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction. What a crock. Virginia, fuck you, old girl, old dead girl.”
She proceeds: “I am not Virginia Woolf. Do you know how many women can’t afford the room, or have no help, or scratch away at things in bars, uses, closets? I prefer a different line of yours, anyway: Arrange whatever pieces come your way. Or this: Someone has to die in order that the rest of us should value life more.”
Woolf’s words are cited again by the photographer”: “Remember what Virginia Woolf said: Give back the awards, should you be cleverly tricked into believing they mean something. Do not forget that the door you are being ushered through has a false reality on the other side. Do not forget that the door is opening only on someone else’s terms, someone else’s definition of open.”
I see echoes of Woolf as well in the reflections of Yuknavitch’s voices. “The Girl,” around whom the novel revolves, muses on an unremarkable image that comes to mind: “It is ordinary because that’s how memory replayed over and over again works—each act of remembering deteriorating the original and creating a memorized copy.”
And when the writer asks herself: “What is the story of a self? What is a chronology? The history of a life?” I flash on Woolf, while in the midst of writing Roger Fry and “A Sketch of the Past,” asking in a letter to Vita Sackville-West, “How does one write a Biography? How can one deal with facts? And what is a life?”