Lidia Yuknavitch is an artist, but not a typical artist. Instead of using paint to illustrate masterpieces, she uses words to create pictures of beauty, brutality, sex and gender in violently vivid pigments. These colors collide in her newest book, The Small Backs of Children.
Yuknavitch’s novel expresses her artistic creativity with short chapters filled with bold, provocative language and a diverse cast of characters, allowing readers to dive into an intense world that will keep them turning the pages.
The Small Backs of Children, released in July 2015, opens with a single moment from a war-plagued, present-day Eastern European village. A 6-year-old girl’s body is flung into the air from the force of a bomb while her family scorches in the blaze behind her. At that moment, a photographer captures the image of the girl with her “eyes locked, her skin blanched, bloodless, her hands and arms flying upward, without control.”
This single jarring photograph propels the rest of the plot. When the photographer’s friend, “the writer,” sees the picture and is reminded of her stillborn child, she attempts suicide. As she slips into a depression, five other artists, named only by their mediums, attempt to bring the orphaned girl to America. The artists include a guilty playwright, a restless performance artist, a resilient dominatrix poet, a conflicted filmmaker and an unstable, murderous painter. Each chapter is written from an artist’s perspective, enabling readers to immerse themselves in the abstract thoughts of those who devote their lives to the craft.
The theme of art is prevalent in each of the 222 pages, but the art in The Small Backs of Children isn’t romanticized or glorified. It is explained in abrupt, violent and often beautifully erratic prose. For example, the girl from the photo, who seeks refuge in a war widow’s house after her family’s tragedy, claims her womanhood by painting with her own menstrual blood, while the writer’s ex-husband, the painter, paints with his feces and semen.
Yuknavitch’s unconventional and experimental style of writing also creatively captures the theme of art. One passage is a compilation of stage directions as if the characters are performers in their own lives, while another scene is retold multiple times with alternative endings. Yuknavitch’s unique form is captivating and thrilling to read since readers don’t know what perspective or style the next chapter will take.
In a chapter appropriately titled “Atomization,” bombs erupt outside a foreign train station while one of the artists, the poet, is stripped and tortured by soldiers she hired to find the girl. Because each page only contains one sentence or paragraph, the climax is intensified. The horrifying scene is emotionally difficult to read through, but its message is invaluable: violence follows us even when we’re not soldiers in war.
The bestselling author, who also wrote The Chronology of Water and Dora: A Headcase, shares many similarities with the writer in the book. Like the writer, Yuknavitch is married to a filmmaker, has a son and lost a daughter in childbirth. She believes in art like a religion and states “gender and sexuality are territories of possibilities” on her website.
These territories are explored throughout The Small Backs of Children. The characters aren’t confined to normative identities, and the novel features a diverse cast, including bisexual, lesbian, old, young, depressed and special needs characters. These identities, which aren’t fully represented in most literature, provoked a much-needed biblio wake-up call; it made me look at my own collection of novels, which embarrassingly features mostly heterosexual middle-aged characters.
The novel is also an unapologetic ode to feminism; although the men are essential to the storyline and are just as flawed and complex as the women, it is the female characters who take center stage to reveal their stories.
When reading topics such as philosophy and religion to understand the history of art, the girl notes there are “chapters, whole books, missing. I see the stories of women, but they are always stuck inside the stories of men.”
The Small Backs of Children is the story of women.
And with the story of women comes narratives of sex and violence. You won’t find the mind-numbing, flowery language that is often found in romance literature, which usually describe a penis as a “sword” or the vagina as a “mound.”
Instead, a spectrum of sexuality is explored. Rape scenes accompany war descriptions. Dominatrix images are described through punctuated phrases such as “raw cleft,” “infant-thin skin” and “bruises that rise like bomb blasts.” These passages serve as a devoted call for artists to claim their own bodies and narratives, a message that is powerful in a time when those whose tastes, experiences and identities differ from the majority are treated as outcasts.
In an interview with the social news site Bustle, Yuknavitch explained, “A book will happen to you that changes your life. When that occurs, find the books that are like that one, because that book is the portal to your own imaginative universe.”
For me, this is the book.
Each one of Yuknavitch’s chapters is a piece of art, with experimental strokes and drawn figures that are beautifully damaged and defiant of stereotypes. The author uses the novel as a blank canvas, and rarely stays inside the lines of gender or country borders. Yuknavitch’s novel is a work of art, and readers should be lining up outside the museum for a glimpse.