Review: The Smallbacks of Children by Lidia Yuknavitch

“I see the stories of women but they are always stuck insides the stories of men.”

Yuknavitch breaks that state immediately with the opening page: Disambiguation, a word that refers to mythology as well as to “a woman who is the source of inspiration.”

Art and mythology fill these stories that are dark and compelling, stories written from the body, within the language of the body. There is nothing nice, normal, or easy. The situation starts with a photograph taken of a girl as her family and home explodes behind her in Bosnia. That’s the easiest part of the novel. Trust me.

The plot follows the desire to find and adopt that child. However, the multiple characters involved in that motivation come from such creative, messed up, raw, disturbed and disturbing lives that is not as easy as hoped.
Yuknavitch breaks other rules and expectations with confidence, telling me to trust her. She knows the forms, the usual arc of a novel, the forms and choses, consciously choses otherwise. There is a reason, I trusted her from the start.  Each character is called after creative roles such as the Poet, Playwright, Photographer, Filmmaker and Writer. Chapters shift perspective, tense, and even form. There are poems, plays, split pages with parallel stories of the same experience, one person’s view on the left, the other on the right. You, the reader, have to pay attention. Read carefully. Take breaks. Devour the words slowly. Other times, when Yuknavitch knows the essence is so important, she paces the reader, one sentence per page, pause, absorb, turn the page, read, absorb.
The sexuality is raw, unashamed, violent and detailed with the stickiness, stench, and sweat of passion shared, taken, and truly in all of Yuknavitch’s work “desire is larger than god.”

The painter talks of “passion, chaos, death” within his art, using his bodily fluids as much as the paints themselves.

The performance artist, another of this extended family of friends, writes in jagged and fragmented sentences, suiting her internal processes in the past and present situation. When she receives a letter, her emotional state is disjointed, stunned and in shock. The sentences are short, abrupt, the verbs and adjectives, her use of language captures that state completely. “Her chest hollows. Her hair. Her hands. Nothing. Useless. Thoughtless.”

There’s nothing expected in this book, not in the development of events, the characters’ perspectives and histories, or the ending. You’ll be taken along and even if this is a world beyond yours, you’ll trust Yuknavitch as she writes with authority, compassion, insight and intelligence. Her stories take us to the “belly of things” – basements, dungeons, violent sex, desires, and borders of all kinds. You’ll follow her willingly.

She asks, “where do any of us come from? Is it a country? A mother? Or is it perhaps an image, a song, a story inside which we feel…named?”

Yes. All of the above.  For as she says, “art, she is in me.”


HarperCollins Publishers, NY


224 pp. $24.99



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