The Doll’s Alphabet (Camilla Grudova)

The best touchstone for Camilla Grudova’s debut collection of short stories is not the writing of her literary peers but the filmmaking of David Lynch, who is best known now for the television series Twin Peaks but first notorious for the cult film Eraserhead.

Grudova’s fictional worlds, like Lynch’s filmed worlds, are closed, insular realms, with clear but surreal logic and a handful of elements repeating in strange combinations. The overall effect is a disturbing, claustrophobic atmosphere that nevertheless feels perfectly ordered. Things make sense in these worlds — stark, simple sense — despite their surface-level strangeness.

In the story “Edward, Do Not Pamper the Dead,” Edward goes to the theatre to see the movie Pinocchio, but first checks “that it was accompanied by a piano instead of an organ, an instrument he hated. Original film sounds had gone missing somehow.” That single sentence — “Original film sounds had gone missing somehow” — is Grudova’s entire explanation for a bizarre event that the characters themselves accept without curiosity or interest.

Why would they question it? This is their world. Grudova excels at this immediate, effective world-building, masterfully casting the reader into crazed realms populated by tragic figures all the more pitiful because of how their nightmarish fates seem normal (even if unacceptable) to them and wholly appropriate to those around them.

In “Waxy,” for example, women live entirely to provide distraction, pleasure, and financial support to men that spend their days studying for and writing exams, in the hopes of winning exam awards and increasing their prestige, thus attracting more beautiful women: “To find a Man who had enough Exam prize money and also wanted to have children, that was the Goal of Life.”

This isn’t exaggeration, or even satire. This is a surrealistic, nightmare dystopia where the entire social order is rigidly structured around this handful of elements and behaviours: “I don’t remember my own parents. Boys and girls were taken away from home at age three. Girls were given five years of schooling in Life Skills and Prospects, then went to work in a Training Factory, which usually made boys’ clothes and toys, while boys stayed in school until sixteen when they started Examinations and began looking for a women to care for them.”

The collection as a whole cycles a handful of recurring aspects — childlike (but horrible) adults, pregnancy, poverty, sewing — with disturbing characters hurtling against one another in startling, off-kilter realms. Women occupy most of the book’s space — they struggle, darkly, against worlds seemingly constructed with their destruction in mind.

Grudova appears to have less interest in normal narrative arcs and character development than in evoking an odd, ruined atmosphere of dread and fascination. The stories seem at once placed in a near-future and the Victorian past.

Grudova’s apparent influences are traceable — she comes across as a weird mix of Charles Dickens, Shirley Jackson, Edward Gorey, and the aforementioned Lynch, with a dash of Margaret Atwood-esque pessimism about the possibility of human relationships added in for good measure. At the same time, it is hard to place her in the current landscape of Canadian literature.

The ultimate impression is of a writer arriving from nowhere, mace in hand, ready to do damage. The Doll’s Alphabet is a self-assured, self-possessed, stunning, incomparable debut.

Support authors (and this site) by buying books! (If you buy this book through that link, this site will receive a portion of the sale to support its operations, but it won’t cost you anything extra.)

You an also support Jonathan Ball, this site’s author, directly, and thus help fund his many projects, including this one (and help put his daughter through university)!

Sign up for a FREE ebook of reading tips — "YOU CAN READ #95BOOKS THIS YEAR" — plus news & reviews in your email!