This is the second book I read as part of my guest stint on The Writer and the Critic. I’d never heard of Koja before, and all I had to go on was Kirstyn’s raving and Mondy’s disgust. Good times.
Looking around on GoodReads it’s clear that this book evokes strong reactions both ways in many people. And I too am riven by indecision about it. The writing is absolutely exquisite; Koja is a mistress of the evocative phrase, the perfect description. It’s a delight to read her prose. This delight may be the only thing that got me through the whole book, and even then I skimmed chunks of the last hundred pages or so. Because, sadly, the plot could not carry me, and the characters weren’t especially engaging either.
Some spoilers… but not very many.
The novel begins in a brothel in an unnamed town, probably at the tail end of the 19th century, somewhere in Europe. It’s owned by Decca and Rupert – not a couple – and as well as whores, Under the Poppy is proud to stage erotic dramas. Real-life drama occurs when Decca’s brother Istvan turns up, unearthing old hurts and catalysing all sorts of other problems. There’s a war in the offing, so there are soldiers in town, and some rather unsavoury characters who may be involved in the war in more ways than one….
In theory, the plot could have been very interesting: love and personal hurt and betrayal in a time of war can have a lot going for it. And the fact that the novel is set in NoTime, and NoRealPlace, lends a lovely note of the surreal which is aided by the surreality of the Poppy’s dramatic presentations, and Istvan’s puppets. Sadly, though, the very subtlety that was quite engaging eventually made me very impatient. Very few issues were ever resolved (until the end, where perhaps too much was tied up too nicely for the general tone of the story (contrary, aren’t I?)), very little of any character’s background was ever fully fleshed out, and while I’m all for mystique there’s a line where mystique becomes so opaque as to be ridiculous. For me, Koja crossed that line.
This mystique affected both the plot and the characters. I enjoyed the technique of third-person narrative interspersed with first-person recollections of the past, or commentary on the current situation; that was very well done. However, there wasn’t quite enough back story for me to ever fully connect with the characters. And one of the main characters for whom I felt a great deal of sympathy – Decca – ends up being treated so poorly by Koja that I couldn’t help but feel offended on her behalf. Yes, Istvan and Rupert are incredibly complex and fascinating characters; but neither of them is very sympathetic (to my mind), and their tantrums got a bit wearing after a while. Unlike someone whose review I read (I don’t recall where), Rupert and Istvan will never be among my Top Romantic Pairs of All Time. I rolled my eyes at them too many times.
It wasn’t all bad, of course. The mystery of when and where was enough to drive me slightly wild, trying to figure out whether any of the events had genuine historical counterparts. Deeper than that, though, was what Koja was doing with Istvan’s puppets. The parallels between Istvan’s use of them in precipitating events and reactions in his audience, and the use to which Istvan himself was put (and others, too), was clever, subtle, and rather pointed I thought (in a good way).
Am I glad I read it? No, not really. The plot fell just short of engaging, although as I said the prose was swoon-worthy; and, although the sex wasn’t usually that graphic, it was just graphic or suggestive enough that it crossed out of my comfort zone.