Camilla Grudova
Coach House Books, 2017
164 pages
ISBN 978-1-552453582

Reviewed by C.S. Broatch

The Doll’s Alphabet is Camilla Grudova’s grisly debut story collection. It is a dystopian title that fuses realism and fantasy, both traditional and experimental. The collection presents an eccentric, curious world that is similar to our own except when it’s not.

This collection features 13 short stories (some only a single page) that are strange and grotesque, often taking science fiction and fantasy tropes and flipping them on their heads. The initial story “Unstitching” features a woman who learns to undo herself. “One afternoon, after finishing a cup of coffee in her living room, Greta discovers how to unstitch herself.” She is terrified of sewing machines, but this new skill will her ‘true self’ and inspire, to the men’s horror, other women to be who they are.

 “The Gothic Society” describes a world consumed by gothic infection in one-page and the society is compared to “zebra mussels.” The collection continues in fragmented, perverted fairy tales with an extensive and unlikely cast: wooden mermaids, dolls, wolves, and spiders. It switches from short story to flash fiction and back again at a dizzying pace, consistent only in it is strange, intensely pleasant hauntings.

Some stories are absurd. “Notes from a Spider” follows an eight-limbed creature that is sad because it cannot find someone to love him, to be like him. One fated day he walks past a sewing shop and sees a gorgeous sewing machine. His attraction is immediate so he buys it and takes home.

In “The Sad Tale of the Sconce” we follow a sconce through different generations and owners. The collection’s namesake, “The Doll’s Alphabet” is a two-liner supplying a limited, 11-letter alphabet. The horrific “The Mouse Queen,” part Italian mythology and part motherhood, features two Latin graduates, their unplanned twins, a gravedigger, and an old lady the size of a dwarf.

“Agata’s Machine,” which garnered her success when published in The White Review, is followed closely by “Rhinoceros,” the peculiar story of a couple who are living day to day on painting commissions and who become enchanted by a zoo until everything starts to unravel. 

Grudova’s work is enchanting, tormented, magic realist though her interview in Publisher’s Weekly indicates she would quibble about the terminology: “I dislike the term realism quite intensely. I wonder, whose reality is that? The things I write are very realistic to me.”

The Doll’s Alphabet is a hauntingly exotic experience, unlike any other, but itis also a beautiful book that even acknowledges the typesetter (Whitman) and “the highly distinct flavour that exudes through the page.  Zephyr Antique paper (manufactured acid-free in Saint Jerome, Quebec from second-growth forests) Vegetable-based ink on 1973 Heidelberg KORD offset litho press. Its pages were folded on a Baumfolder, gathered by hand, bound on a Sulby Auto-Minabinda and trimmed off a Polar single-knife cutter.”

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