cover image The Doll’s Alphabet

The Doll’s Alphabet

Camilla Grudova. Coffee House (Consortium, dist.), $15.95 trade paper (176p) ISBN 978-1-56689-490-6

Women become wolves, men are born spiders, Gothic ornaments conquer an apartment building, and corpses complain in Grudova’s smart, haunting debut collection. Set in worlds that overlap with ours—characters listen to Tchaikovsky, watch Pinocchio, and travel to Europe—these stories nevertheless render familiar tropes deeply strange. In the dystopia of “Rhinoceros,” trains don’t run, food is scarce, but a young couple survives by selling drawings of animals they’ve never seen to a mysterious man in a gray top hat. The society of “Waxy” sanctions an extreme form of couplehood: women must support their men by working in hazardous factories, where they are often maimed, while men study for exams and visit cafés. Many objects and images recur throughout the collection: women remove their skin to reveal their “true” bodies, which resemble sewing machines, in “Unstitching,” and an eight-legged dandy falls in love with a sewing machine in “Notes from a Spider,” hiring seamstresses to keep the machine running at any cost, even their own lives. A kidnapped mermaid skulks around the house in “The Mermaid,” while a ship’s wooden mermaid figurehead gives birth to a little cherub statue in “The Sad Tale of the Sconce.” A canny collage artist with an eye for the comically macabre, Grudova scavenges her images from Victorian and Edwardian aesthetics. Against this background, her ironies and insights about the inequalities in relationships between men and women feel startlingly current. (Oct.)