Gorgeous cover art for Kathe Koja's "Under the Poppy," isn't it? When I first read a review of this work, I found out that Koja lives about 20-30 minutes from me. Then I saw the cover and was sold.
Or it might have been the references to brothels, sex puppets, homoeroticism, and Brussels. Whoo! That sounds pretty much like an RS homerun, wouldn't you think?
Poppy is, in some ways, historical fic: Belgium in the 1870s, war coming, and besides a fair amount of political intrigue, there's a lot to do with social standing and the relative importance (or non) of women, gays, those with money, those with not. It takes off with a barn-burner of a scene: up in one of the private rooms at Under the Poppy, a rather specialized brothel, poor Pearl is being accosted by two men. Or is she? Manager Rupert Bok answers her screams, and all find out that Pearl's patron isn't who he seems.
It seems the prodigal son has returned. Or brother, or long-lost lover, depending on one's perspective. Now, against the backdrop of imminent war and a financial crisis, the Poppy is, essentially, under siege. And so, too, are the hearts of our three main characters: Decca and brother, Istvan, and their mutual friend and mutual love interest, Rupert.
And now things get messy, and unfortunately, not only in the plot.
I wanted to like this book. I wanted to love it. But at every turn, I found myself sighing with aggravation. Let me return to the inital review that caught my attention: Koja has written a fair number of books, and the reviewer seems to put the reason that she isn't a household name yet squarely in the territory of "subjects too strange and out-there for the average reader."
I hold the reason is something different entirely.
Yes, I'm aware that many people don't want to read a book whose main love interests are two men, nor do they want to read about puppets that perform sex acts on stage. But neither of those things is portrayed graphically, if at all. (a minor quibble from me, and undeserved, but nonetheless: WHERE was the sex? A shirt is unbuttoned and then... fade to black. Harrumph. Harrumph, I say!)
The problem, I believe, lies in Koja's writing itself. The author is a staunch supporter of the emdash, the run-on sentence, and most of all, the beloved head-hopping. While Cory Doctorow calls her writing "poetic," I call it a bleedin' mess. I had to stop quite often to figure out just who said what. And what is this? Same paragraph, different scene altogether? If the author was trying for an omniscient pov, I believe she failed. The voice never catches, and leaves one aggravated.
As, in fact, do her characters. While Decca made my heart ache, the two supposed stars of this show, Istvan and Rupert, did nothing. They both remained as insubstantial as the gauze on a performing whore's tits. Istvan, our master puppeteer and brilliant strategist, a man with a shady past and a flair for the dramatic, should have leapt off the page. And Rupert, supposedly a magnet for men and women alike, a man who does not understand his own massive sexual attraction -- er, I didn't understand it, either. And trust me, that man should've been right up my alley.
Add in an unrelentingly grim story, some obvious twists, and the regulation "and this is how they all lived afterwards" ending, and you've got an unsatisfying read.
The editor in me wanted desperately to clean this story up. It's already complicated enough, with characters designed to put on a good show; if Koja had stepped back and let the story tell itself, they would've been the star. Instead, I felt as if she was trying to be impressive. As if her true goal was to say: Look at me! Look at what a writer I am!
Now. I loves me some experimental literature. But it doesn't always work -- for me. And so I end this review on this note: Bryan Russell wrote an intriguing blog, You Hate Me and I'm Okay With That, which talks about writers being crushed when a reader disses their work. He uses JK Rowling as an example: despite selling 900 billion books, some people despise her work. About his own writing, he says:
not everyone will like my writing. It doesn't really matter how good I become, there will always be people who won't connect with it.
He goes on to talk about this subject, and I bring it up because, while Koja isn't a household name, people do love her books. For me, though, there was no connection at all.
But if you think, despite this review, that this book is intriguing, and you'd like to give it a read, let me know. I was going to put it into the box for the used book store, but it occurs to me that someone might love this book. If you think you're that person -- and you live in the US -- let me know. I'll be happy to mail it out to you.