A Review of Camilla Grudova's The Doll's Alphabet
Review by Rudrapriya Rathore
Readers looking for likeable characters and neat resolutions should avert their eyes from Camilla Grudova’s debut short story collection, A Doll’s Alphabet. Described as “Angela Carter’s natural inheritor,” Grudova spends 13 stories carefully constructing a world in which despair, violence, and material ruin govern the lives of individual characters. Here, men bring dwarf corpses home and women stuff them deep into parlour organs. Children invent machines that project hypnotising images onto walls and sit in front of them for years. Costumes, sewing machines, and dolls come alive, grotesquely animated by the fears and obsessions of people surrounding them.
There is very little comfort here. Though no dates or geographic locales are given (the stories take place in “the neighbourhood” or “the factory” or, most often, in homes and apartments in anonymous cities), the atmosphere of a newly industrialized, Dickensian London seems the closest comparison. Part of what appeals about Grudova’s aesthetic impulses is her boldness in laying bare the ugliness of this imagined universe. Rations of tinned meat, rat infestations, and masses of impoverished citizens abound. It’s only appropriate, then, that people do ugly things to each other. In “The Mouse Queen,” Peter, a Latin student, leaves his girlfriend when she becomes pregnant with their twins, suspicious that his girlfriend “had betrayed him in a mythological manner.” She poses for a photograph after they’re born, meaning to send it to him, but finds a wolf’s face instead of her own staring back at her from the photo. Later, after purchasing a pink rubber mask of a girl’s face from a costume shop, the protagonist finds that her twins have disappeared, and she feels full, “as if [she] had eaten something large.”
Many of the stories follow a dream-logic, studded with sinister figures and metaphors of structural social inequalities. Like Kafka’s long-suffering “K", Grudova’s characters come off as somewhat impersonal, lacking inner traits, as though they could be anyone. And as in painter and novelist Leonora Carrington’s creepy, surrealist stories, A Doll’s Alphabet is often edged with a deliberately feminine resistance to patriarchy. Pieces of clothing, for example, carry enormous significance for their ability to transform the wearer. Lingerie, stockings and new dresses are coveted, since seducing men is necessary for one’s social stability. Sewing machines are particularly important: described as giant, black ants, their presence symbolizes all female oppression. When women learn how to “unstitch” themselves in “Unstitching,” they leave their false bodies behind to reveal “true, secret selves.” But when men try to do the same, they discover that they’re made of “only what was taught and known,” and end up “wounded and disappointed.”
It’s clear that Grudova wants to reference an older world while emphasizing her political concerns with the present. Occasionally, her specific approach of ironic allegory takes away from the actual tale by being both on-the-nose and confusing. “All the women looked alike” when unstitched, she writes, compelling the reader to ask, is it patriarchy we’re mocking here, or a stagnant white feminism that believes in women’s true and yet identical selves?
When she indulges her whimsy, Grudova excels. She turns homes into nightmarish spaces designed for sex and housework, marriage rituals and duties. Pregnancy becomes an archeological horror show: one ultrasound looks like “an ancient, damaged frieze,” and its bearer has to find work in a chocolate factory, dreaming of “eating chocolates filled with bird bones, rocks, gold nuggets, Roman coins, teeth.” Women live in perpetual fear of being impregnated, and birth control — in an all-too-realistic touch — costs a fortune, both financially and morally. Emmeline, in “The Mermaid,” says that “an ear came out of her once, and she put it in a box to keep in case more bits came out and she had to assemble them.” It is a mark of Grudova’s humour and talent that Emmeline’s “labour” is both physical and industrial, that she anticipates having to assemble her child as she would have to do in the kind of factory where innumerable women work. Instead of being pure or natural, childbirth is just that — at the end of the day, it’s just more work.
In addition to gender, Grudova is obsessed with materiality. Teacups, clocks, clowns, trains, needles, ships and doll’s houses populate the text, making its imagined space quaint and old fashioned, like an antiques shop. Entire pages are dedicated to listing the precious possessions of one wealthy industrialist named Baron. (Because he can’t stand to lose anything in a shipwreck, he gets each object canned by a factory for an overseas voyage.) People are defined by their ownership of or desperate desire for things, colouring the work with a starkly capitalist brush. Grudova’s choices are careful, and the barrage of objects signals who we are as a species, what we care about, and what we leave behind. In fact, the review copy of Grudova’s book arrived with a sewing needle and mending kit, as well as a set of buttons. It reminds one that the packaging we place so much faith in is fragile, in constant need of another few stitches, and always in danger of unravelling.
Rudrapriya Rathore’s writing has appeared in Joyland, Minola Review, Carousel, the Winnipeg Review, the Walrus, and Hazlitt, among other publications. She lives in Toronto.