Lidia Yuknavitch's 'Small Backs of Children' evokes discomfort even as it dazzles

In the opening pages of "The Small Backs of Children," Lidia Yuknavitch's explosive new novel, an Eastern European war orphan watches a wolf free itself from a trap by gnawing off its own leg, then squats over the abandoned limb and urinates on the blood and snow.

It's an indelible scene that introduces the book's main themes of art, violence and the body: "This is how the sexuality of a girl is formed — an image at a time — against white; taboo, thoughtless, corporeal."

The girl is the central figure of the novel, both as her own character and as symbol, object and beloved of a coterie of American artists. In the moment her family is atomized in an "inconsequential blast" in her war-torn village, she is captured, mouth open in agony, by the lens of an American photojournalist. Alone and unheeded, she runs into the woods, where she meets a widow who takes her in and teaches her about art.

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The photograph takes on a life of its own, garnering fame and prizes and changing the fates of several Americans in the photographer's circle. The photographer sends the image to her friend the writer, who excoriates her for leaving the girl. The writer, fresh with despair after delivering a stillborn daughter ("When grief comes, you must breathe underwater"), becomes obsessed with the orphan, mentally fusing together these two lost daughters. When the writer falls into a deep, suicidal depression, her crew of artist friends and family undertake a mission to find the girl in the photograph and bring her to the States.

The novel bounces between multiple perspectives and first-, second-, and third-person narrative, with several successful experiments in form. It straddles the U.S. and Eastern Europe; it straddles the space of the body and the space of the mind; it straddles truth and fiction. The writer, like most characters in the book, is unnamed, but she is a clear stand-in for Yuknavitch, who traces her career in both memoir and fiction to the death of her daughter the day she was born.

"Every self is a novel in progress," says the fictional writer, who frames part of the girl's story as a novel, then disappears into that novel. "Every novel a lie that hides the self."

This is not a conventional work of fiction, and at times things like character development and pacing are sacrificed in favor of broad strokes that are poetic and shocking but a bit circumspect. The central cast is large for such a short book, and few characters get enough exposure that their betrayals and injuries, whether inflicted or received, resonate deeply. While the themes are fascinating and nuanced, the plot ends up feeling like a compilation of extreme actions and events that read like art as provocation.

Which, incidentally, seems to be the point. Yuknavitch writes to evoke and stir the body: as the widow tells the girl, "[T]he body is the metaphor for all experience. A woman's body more than any other. Like language, its beautiful but weaker sister." She writes about the union of body and art in the face of death, often achieved, by both characters and author, through gruesome use of sex and violence. This is a book of intriguing ideas; it is also a book of bodily fluids.

"The Small Backs of Children" is not always enjoyable, but it is fierce in its vision, with captivating prose that carries its own momentum. Yuknavitch has created a reading experience that is uncomfortable and dazzling, with a vital intensity that grabs at the gutstrings.

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The Small Backs of Children
A Novel

Lidia Yuknavitch

Harper: 240 pp., $24.95

Cha is the author of "Beware Beware" and the forthcoming "Dead Soon Enough."

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