If I told you what this clever, captivating book was about, you probably wouldn’t read it.
A dwarf girl? Who becomes a wolf girl? Who becomes a wolf? Naw, you’d say with a dismissive shrug. No thanks.
But “Little Nothing,” Marisa Silver’s inventive new novel, should not be so easily dismissed. In this page-turner, Silver unleashes her considerable imagination on a cast of colorful and endearingly flawed characters who are forced to fight against their stunted fates. The result is a beautifully told, heart-rending, can’t-put-it-down read.
From the first pages, in which we witness the profanity-laced birth of our heroine, Pavla, it’s clear that we’re in for a rollicking story. In fact, it’s got all the elements of a fairy tale (think Grimm, not Disney).
Born to elderly peasants, Pavla is a dwarf that her kindly parents try hard to hate, as the rest of the God-fearing villagers do. Instead, they fall deeply in love with their precocious daughter, who eventually becomes a beauty (albeit a short one), a wunderkind and something of a talisman for the village.
While it’s set in an imaginary town (rural Eastern Europe, perhaps) at the turn of the last century (possibly), the story is all too believable because Silver nails the details. She creates a stratified civilization with its own language (Pavla means “Little”), its own useless and endless war, even its own lore.
And Pavla, like her mother, is raised on those stories — of kings and paupers, goblins and changelings, a “monster with a big sausage” and a tiny mouse that turns out to be the “biggest help.” Pavla’s bleak early childhood gives way to a quirky but happy life, until her parents are overwhelmed by their fear for Pavla’s future. What will happen to her when they die? There will be no prince to carry her away, not even a ham-handed husband to offer a home.
In their desperate attempts to make her normal (i.e. marriageable), they turn to a series of self-professed doctors (quacks all) in hopes of making her tall. They succeed, but in doing so, render her fit not for a marriage bed but a carnival show.
And that’s just the beginning.
But make no mistake: “Little Nothing” isn’t pulp fiction. Silver masterfully balances a riveting plot with deep meaning — exploring love and its inadequacies, the persistent and unequal power of sexuality, the cost of being an outcast in a fearfully conforming society.
And her language is simply stunning. Her hardworking mother, the infant Pavla observes, “is a digger, yanker, wringer, twister, and an aggressive and sometimes angry stirrer.” As her mother watches the ungainly daughter she has come to love, she “feels her chest expand to make room for the brew of awe and heartache that she has come to identify as happiness.”
At the end of the book (no spoiler alert needed), we don’t know what finally becomes of Pavla. Is she a woman? A wolf? An allegory?
I’m guessing we never will know. Just like in a fairy tale.
Connie Nelson is the senior editor for lifestyles at the Star Tribune.
By: Marisa Silver.
Publisher: Blue Rider Press, 336 pages, $27.
Event: 6 p.m. Oct. 13, Chapter 2 Books, Hudson, Wis