Maria Headley's Reviews > Hell

Hell by Kathryn Davis
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Jan 25, 11

it was amazing
Read in December, 2010

I discovered Kathryn Davis via her fantastic story in My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me and now I'm wondering how I missed her all these years. Her work will appeal to fans of Angela Carter (Saints and Strangers)and Kelly Link (Magic for Beginners), and this book in particular reminds me of a more mysterious, more complicated version of The Lovely Bones crossed with, say, David Lynch's Blue Velvet, and Angela Carter's terrific story about Lizzie Borden, The Fall River Axe Murders.

In short, it's totally brilliant, and it deserves your attention.

The story is one of barely-repressed horror, taking place amongst 1)the residents of a dollhouse, trapped inside the house of 2)the 1950's family of Edwin and Dorothy Moss, which is haunted (if not literally, metaphorically) by 3) Edwina Moss, a 19th century expert on household management whose "sensible advice" seems to have shifted into a fervor of obsessive-compulsive madness. There's also the occasional glimpse from the point of view of Antonin Careme, chef to Napoleon, in particular a chilling/beautiful banquet of turtles and spun sugar he creates for the Emperor and his bride-to-be, Josephine. In each grouping of characters, there are feasters and fasters, as it were. The 19th century homemaking expert tangles with a daughter who wants to live on air, and in the 1950's narrative, something similar happens. In the dollhouse, everyone is hungry, and all there is to eat is plaster dollhouse food, and a dish of moldering barley provided by the dollhouse's owner. In the 1950's section, a young girl is killed, and throughout the novel, details come together seemingly casually to clarify what happened to her, and why.

The novel is interested in the notion of one person's perfection being another's hell, as well as in the notion of one person's perfection being THEIR OWN hell. The TV series Mad Men deals with this, of course, as do books like Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road. The idea of the glory/horror of 1950's suburbia is something that we've read and seen for a long time, but HELL goes far beyond those works. (However, if you like them, you may well enjoy this!)

The three parallel narratives slide and shuffle around each other, and it takes careful reading to remember which of them is going on at any given moment - there is no indication in chapter headings - but in truth, it doesn't matter. All the narratives inform each other, and the events in each time period/place slip into the next. I suspect a lot of initial reviewers/readers were paralyzed by the book's seeming "difficulty" - it's not remotely straightforward. This is a book that one must give oneself up to. It doesn't work if you try to reformat it into a traditional narrative structure. (Hence, I really can't even try to summarize it. There are endless bits that I can't explain, but which are constructed according to their own magic. There's an amazing sequence from the point of view of a mouse trying to reorganize a dollhouse, for example.)

As Nancy Willard, reviewing for the New York Times, said in 1998 when HELL was first published: "Davis's writing shines brightest when, with sinuous sentences and catalogues of objects, she describes interiors so complex that you feel as if you'd stepped into a box assembled by Joseph Cornell. A list of the contents of a kitchen drawer evokes the 1950's, and, considering his penchant for dolls behaving like humans, it's no surprise that E. T. A. Hoffmann shows up on the house's bookshelves. Lest we miss the point, one short section of the novel is devoted to a discussion of dolls, Freud and Hoffmann's tale ''The Sandman.'' "

That leads me to a final example of Kathryn Davis's ingenious craft: Back to that dollhouse-arranging mouse and E.T.A Hoffmann. The German writer and pioneer of fantasy, Hoffmann (1776-1822), is best known for his story "The Nutcracker and The Mouse King," which is the basis for the wildly-popular holiday ballet, The Nutcracker. (The ballet Coppelia is loosely based on The Sandman. Very loosely.)

Hoffmann's work is profoundly dark and strange (the aforementioned Sandman contains walking-talking dolls, as well as the Sandman himself, a character who steals children's eyes. Neil Gaiman uses the notion in his own Sandman series (Preludes and Nocturnes) with a memorably terrifying character named The Corinthian), but has often been transformed into glittering entertainment. In The Nutcracker, there is, of course, a sequence involving a mouse ballet, as the Mouse King and his cohorts take over the house, endangering Clara, the heroine. She throws her slipper, enabling The Nutcracker Prince to kill the Mouse King and save her, taking her to the Land of Sweets.

In this book, nobody gets saved. The mouse takes all the furniture out of the dollhouse and piles it on a "dropping-spattered" dresser scarf, all the while looking for food and talking with the ghost of a dead girl. It takes over the house. The dolls lose their grasp on perfection, and the mouse puts all the rubble of their civilization into a pile. The Mouse King (or Queen) wins.

I mean, come on. You don't have to think about all of that while you're reading. I just thought about it as I was writing this, but the truth of this book is that it is ALL like that. It goes deep. If you want to go deep with it (it'll lend itself to multiple readings) you can, and that would be fun. Davis uses references throughout the book which each extend backward into something like the Hoffmann/mouse/dollhouse reference I detail above, but even a reading that doesn't take any of this into account will be a pleasurable one. This book is magical and haunting, scary and wondrous, just like those original Hoffman stories were before we covered them all up with tutus and feathers and Mother Ginger's bonbons.

Do yourself a major favor and read it.

And PS: Since we're talking about E.T.A. Hoffmann, and about Angela Carter, it'd be criminal not to also recommend Carter's novel The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman which is inspired by Hoffmann's stories and narrative arcs.

PPS: Another book this reminded me of, however sideways, is Betty Ren Wright's YA chiller The Dollhouse Murders. Even if you're an adult, you might dig it as a purchase along with this.
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04/08 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-1 of 1) (1 new)

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Bronwyn Wow, amazing review. I'm about 50 pages in, and happy to know, that from your review, I should be experiencing this book, and not focusing so much on understanding it.


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