Book review: The Small Backs of Children - Woolf-like
How the young end up as metaphors who help us tell our stories rather than fully living their own
"I see the stories of women, but they are always stuck inside the stories of men. Why is that?"
So says Menas, the Lithuanian girl at the centre of Lidia Yuknavitch's The Small Backs of Children, a prose poem recast as a novel and calling to mind the late work of Virginia Woolf and Clarice Lispector's short stories, while slyly rewriting Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita.
When we first meet Menas, she is watching an ensnared wolf gnawing off its leg to break free - an apt metaphor for Menas' own efforts to overcome a childhood in which she was repeatedly raped by marauding soldiers and saw her family blown to oblivion in an explosion she somehow survived.
"I am like a blast particle - a piece of matter that was not destroyed, a piece of something looking for form," Menas tells us. With the help of a bereft woman whose husband had been shipped to Siberia when Lithuania was a Soviet republic, the form that shapes Menas and her story is art; she becomes a painter and grows toward womanhood.
Or does she?
On the other side of the world, an American writer in a coma whose daughter was stillborn may be dreaming Menas' story, as recompense for all she's lost.
"This, reader, is a mother-daughter story," the writer tells us, before later reviewing all the reasons that the image of Menas - preserved in an award-winning photograph, shot at the moment when Menas' family evaporated - haunts her.
"Maybe she is my dead daughter," says the writer. "Maybe she is me. Maybe, the girl is simply a metaphor for what we lose or what we make. And maybe the girl is just a girl, an imagined one, one created from the mind of a woman lost in the spaces between things."
Menas becomes an embodiment of all that we place on the small backs of children - and particularly small girls - as they shoulder the crippling burden of our impossible expectations and desires, becoming metaphors who help us tell our stories rather than fully living their own.
The Small Backs of Children: A Novel by Lidia Yuknavitch (Harper)
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