Book Review

The Doll’s Alphabet by Camilla Grudova

Surreal, ambitious and exquisitely conceived, The Doll’s Alphabet is a collection of stories in the tradition of Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood. Dolls, sewing machines, tinned foods, mirrors, malfunctioning bodies – many images recur in stories that are in turn child-like and naive, grotesque and very dark. In Unstitching, a feminist revolution takes place. In Waxy, a factory worker fights to keep hold of her Man in a society where it is frowned upon to be Manless. In Agata’s Machine, two schoolgirls conjure a Pierrot and an angel in a dank attic room. In Notes from a Spider, a half-man, half-spider finds love in a great European city. By constantly reinventing ways to engage with her obsessions and motifs, Camilla Grudova has come up with a method for storytelling that is highly imaginative, incredibly original, and absolutely discomfiting.

I love this collection of short stories from Camilla Grudova, which for me showed hints of Angela Carter and Shirley Jackson with their dark, almost nightmarish undertones.  Each story in the collection is quite different and yet there are recurring themes and motifs throughout, and there’s an undeniably feminist angle to the majority of the collection.  As with most collections of short stories, there are some that I enjoyed more than others but overall, I found this to be an enjoyable and thought-provoking collection. 

My favourite tale in the collection is Unstitching.  It’s a short tale extending to (just) three pages, but one that I found to be incredibly powerful despite its brevity.  It features a feminist revolution in which women are able to be their true selves, with little concern for the men in their lives, and Grudova perfectly captures the disappointing and inevitable reaction from some:

Men were divided between those who ‘always knew there was something deceitful about women’ and were therefore satisfied when they were proven right, and those who lamented ‘the loss of the female form’.

It’s an unusual tale, but one that seems the perfect antidote to those “give us a smile, sweetheart” types.  I think it perfectly captures what it is to be a woman and still expected to conform to certain standards, and what happens when one and then two – and soon others – dare to break the mould. 

Another favourite from this collection is Waxy, which has distinctly dystopian undertones.  There’s a harkening back to older times when a woman’s main role was to look after hearth and home, with the emphasis here put on women doing whatever is necessary to please their Man (the capitalisation is deliberate).  Grudova takes it to extremes in this tale where a woman without a Man is deemed lesser, and where those who have a Man must do their utmost to keep him happy, lest their Man go elsewhere.  What stood out to me was that the Men in the tale don’t actually seem to do anything of use – the women work, and the Men study their philosophy books and take exams.  I think that there’s a really strong message of appreciating the work that women do, whether they’re in paid employment, stay at home mums etc..

This is a powerful and compelling collection, and I’ll be looking out for more from this talented and unique author. The Doll’s Alphabet is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions and is available in paperback and eBook formats.

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