LIDIA YUKNAVITCH takes risks! She is anything but boring. If I were writing this article on a wall, I would write "Lidia Yuknavitch starts shit," and mean it in a very positive way. With her 2012 Oregon Book Award-winning Chronology of Water, Yuknavitch held firm that her book was an anti-memoir—a novel written about her life, but with kid gloves off. She invited dissection on a lit-theory level and insisted her book could take it.
If you've read Chronology, it's impossible to ignore the ways Yuknavitch's new novel, The Small Backs of Children (in bookstores July 7), also seems to cull from her personal history. The book's central character, a writer, is a Yuknavitch mask—a woman traumatized by giving birth to a stillborn child, and mother to a young son. Yuknavitch's cast of characters are not named but labeled: painter, poet, filmmaker, performance artist, and so on. Novel characters often serve as stand-ins for the author, so this lack of characterization works. Yuknavitch's figures hover around the unconscious writer's bedside, and work solely to speed her recovery. Each functions as a device to allow Yuknavitch new powers of textual arrangement. The novel jumps from prose to play to poem and does so with control.
Yuknavitch's writing style works in absolutes and blanket statements like large swaths of color on a canvas. There were moments where mentions of Jim Morrison or Balvenie scotch almost ejected me from the book altogether, but I stayed with it and realized Yuknavitch wasn't saying clichéd things just to seem cool. She was saying them to be bare and vulnerable and known, like crying in front of a friend for the first time. I do not agree with many of the things this book does. That said, the fact that I am seeking to distance myself from a novel in the midst of a review speaks to the incredible force of Small Backs—it really comes at you.
Some people will take this book as gospel. Some are going to freak out. Small Backs contains depictions of child sexual abuse handled with the stoniness of a survivor who realizes not just how awful it is but also that people should have license to survive in different ways. There are some very grim things in this novel, but if you ask me to follow Yuknavitch's plume into a raw, experimental work, I gladly will.