Lidia Yuknavitch's 2011 memoir, "The Chronology of Water," was a searing exploration of family, abuse and the recovery of the body.
Her new novel, "The Small Backs of Children," picks up many of those threads as it braids a mythic story and an experimental narrative that take up questions of violence, female identity and art.
The novel opens in an unnamed Eastern European country caught between ethnic cleansing and the birth of democracy. In this violent landscape, a girl appears, fleeing in winter, an orphan who has seen her family vaporized in a bomb blast as the war is winding down.
Her photo is caught by a war photographer so embedded in the landscape that she is present at the precise moment the bomb goes off. Her photo captures "a girl blowing forward, a girl coming out of fire, a girl who looks as if she might blast right through image and time into the world."
The story takes up a second thread, that of a writer spooling through her life. We meet those around the writer, her filmmaker husband, her playwright brother, her artist ex-husband, her lover the poet, all identified simply by artistic discipline.
The story moves from a midnight blue writing room to a hospital where the writer is muffled in a white cocoon of depression. As the girl moves forward, seeking a way out of the war zone, the writer moves backward, untangling strands of abuse, desire and loss.
Several of the friends around the writer have stories that, in moments, come into relief. The playwright brother becomes angry when the writer invents her own words to "Romeo and Juliet."
The war photographer tries to disappear into her own photos.
The artist drinks and has sex until he loses his ego and can create, then smears his body with paint and rolls naked on giant canvases. In one of the rare humorous moments of the novel, he writes a letter to a girlfriend he's about to leave, refusing to apologize for his violence toward the women in his life. "I am as deeply unsorry as a person can be."
The most emotionally resonant strand of this novel is that of the girl, who survives war and rebuilds her identity out of art and words. Yuknavitch is rewriting our cultural mythos here, carving a path for women to be fiercely creative and alive with desire.
The novel's disinterest in narrative, however, along with its unnamed characters and unresolved plot threads, often has the feel of an experimental film where the tape simply runs to white.
Trisha Collopy is a Star Tribune copy editor.