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Kathryn the Great.

Labrador

By Kathryn Davis

Minneapolis, MN; Graywolf Press, 2019, 232 pp., $16.00, paperback

The Silk Road

By Kathryn Davis

Minneapolis, MN; Graywolf Press, 2019, 144 pp., $24.00, hardcover

On March 5, Graywolf Press simultaneously published Kathryn Davis's most recent novel, The Silk Road, and a reissue of her 1988 debut novel, Labrador. I expect to see a great many reviews for one or both books that begin, like this one, with astonishment that Davis is not better known. I had never heard of her until now, and after reading Labrador, I have no idea why; it is a startling, strange, beautifully made book, as spooky as Shirley Jackson and as meticulous as Gustave Flaubert. The Silk Road is a bit harder to recommend, but I'll get there.

The title of Labrador refers to the geographical location, a remote, hostile territory in eastern Canada. The narrator of the novel, Kitty, eventually travels there, and bloody disaster ensues. Prior to that event, the novel traces the toxic relationship between Kitty and her four-years-older sister, Willie, who is some variety of sociopath. Their parents are alcoholic (father) and oblivious (mother), and Kitty, though tall and wise, is withdrawn and unsocialized to an extreme degree. Willie is a beautiful ballet dancer, and she charms but disdains everyone around her. The novel is written in the first person by Kitty to Willie, who is treated as the second person.

So far, we have a beautifully written dysfunctional-family story, but oh, there's also an angel named Rogni who saves Kitty's life after an accident Willie deliberately causes, and who visits Kitty throughout the book to tell her stories. These stories are dreadful, fairy-tale-like in structure, but with completely unexpected, non-didactic endings. For instance, a story about an old woman who gives birth to a daughter after mating with a massive polar bear ends thus:
And then, from deep inside the earth and from under the oceans the
angels rose up, their flanks shining and hard. And all traces of the
future evaporated--like wet footprints on a wooden floor, marking the
lover's passage down a corridor towards the beloved, who wakes
screaming in a bath of light. And all that was left was a dark imp,
hunched in the corner, sucking on a marrow bone. And the imp's name was
Romance.


Yep. It's an uncanny book, full of weird jealousy and not-quite-fully-explained incidents and consequences, swaying in and out of the mood and style of a fairy tale, employing dream logic soberly. It is not at all funny. But the aura of masterpiece hovers around each well-crafted sentence, some of them so beautiful that my breath caught: "But the only part of me capable of motion was my heart, red and polished as the plane, tiny and blunt-nosed, its attempts at flight constantly thwarted, as if there was nothing inside my body so vast as a soul." Labrador is a reading experience I won't soon forget.

Moving forward thirty years, to The Silk Road, we find a book equally strange and unconcerned with ordinary logic, but much more obtuse. If there is a plot in this book, I missed it. There are many locations, and about a dozen characters, but the book dips so deeply into allegory that it proves difficult to track. Its concerns are obvious enough: there is a plague, there is global warming, there is isolation for safety's sake, there is thwarted love. Beyond the general shape of calamity with which the book is plainly occupied, little is clear.

The main characters are the Astronomer, the Archivist, the Botanist, the Keeper, the Topologist, the Geographer, the Iceman, the Cook, and Jee Moon. All of these characters except for Jee Moon seem to be siblings, because the narration is first-person plural, and "we" speaks a great deal about "our mother," a Nanny, and incidents that indicate some kind of childhood spent together. Partway through the book I began to wonder if the titled characters were disguised aliens, after The Man Who Fell to Earth, cared for by a group of deceitful scientists. I also considered that Davis was repositioning the story of the Donovan song "Atlantis." I tried a variety of techniques to make sense of this book, and all of them failed.

This does not mean that the book is bad, because I'm certain it isn't. Davis knows what she's doing. She ought to, after thirty years of sustained work as a novelist. And her craft, though it has evolved into something sparer and more abstract, is recognizable as the same careful wordsmithing that produced Labrador: "Her skin, too, had the slightest green tint to it, not unlike the Qingbai porcelain water dropper that had traveled with us the length of the Silk Road, only to end its days in the top drawer of the bachelor chest among the marbles." I think this book suffers on a single read, and that it might need to be reread to make sense of its slowly revolving scenes, the sense that the same thing is happening over and over but it can't be described or set in memory. I was reminded of Anna Kavan's Ice, how much I disliked that book's repetition and abstraction, and how certain I am now that, even though I may never enjoy her work, Kavan is right and I am wrong.

Six novels lie between the spell of Labrador and the challenge of The Silk Road, and I feel fortunate to have learned that I must read them. The evolution of Davis's craft may be more visible book by book, and she may lead where my puny mind cannot follow, but I doubt that any one of her books will fail to satisfy in some profound ways. A sentence from Labrador perfectly sums up the experience of reading Davis's work: "This was wilderness, believe me, without margin, beautiful and predatory."

Reviewed by Katharine Coldiron

Katharine Coldiron's work has appeared in Ms., the Times Literary Supplement, LARB, The Rumpus, VIDA, and often in the Women's Review of Books. She lives in California and at kcoldiron.com.
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Title Annotation:Labrador, The Silk Road
Author:Coldiron, Katharine
Publication:The Women's Review of Books
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 2019
Words:1015
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