How did I even end up with this book? Do you know what it’s about? Puppets. Puppets! Fucking puppets man. I hate puppets. The creep me the hell out. And ‘Under the Poppy’ is just crammed full of them. In the literal sense, in that there is traveling genius puppeteer Istvan who has created and stolen a whole troupe of puppets with which he performs well received (and oft times risqué) shows all across 1800s Europe. But also in the metaphorical sense, in that Koja spends a lot of time examining who controls a mans strings, and what lengths one must go to cut them.
And it’s not just the puppets. This book? Is literary fiction. Do you see me reading literary fiction? No. I read about space ships and swords and post apocalyptic landscapes. And this book? Has none of those things. There’s nothing speculative at all, it’s not like, say, ‘The Book Thief’ where on the one hand it’s all literary but on the other hand it’s narrated by death, no, everything in ‘Under the Poppy’ is as it seems. (Except for Istvan’s creepy ass fucking puppets).
Again I ask, how did I end up with this puppet filled tome of magic-less literature? Actually, no, that’s not the right question. The right question how, given the abundance of puppets and lack of dragons, did I come to love this book so much? Because guys, seriously, I loved this book.
It barely even has a plot for crying out loud! Well, no, actually I think it does have a plot, I think it’s just that I wasn’t quite smart enough to follow it. Or maybe I was too distracted by the decadent prose to keep track of it? Ok, so, we’re in a brothel in the year eighteen something or other, somewhere in Europe, and there’s some sort of war going on. Rupert and Decca are the powners of said brothel, and it’s all business as usual until Decca’s brother Istvan (and his puppets) show up out of the blue. It turns out Dia is in love with Rupert, but Rupert loves Istvan, and Istvan loves Rupert too except that they’ve been parted for reasons most mysterious… Also they need to figure out a way to keep the brothel safe from the encroaching war.
At any given point in this book I was never entirely sure what was going in. There were a great many political machinations, and there a were a bunch of flashbacks to Rupert, Decca and Istvan’s childhoods as Oliver Twist-esque street urchins and then, just when I thought maybe I was getting the hang of it, the first half ends and the second half is basically a sequel set years in the future. Actually this second half was a lot easier for me to follow, and I don’t know if was written to be so, or if I was just settling into the unique grove of Koja’s prose.
In any case, it never really mattered to me that I was always a little lost. This book reminded me of a modernist painting, wherein the artist suggests what the subject is without ever actually coming out and painting. Koja hands nothing to the reader. She revels in the details, the smells and sounds of her European setting, and it’s from this that our understanding of what’s going on is formed. Each sentence is like a rich desert, layered and beautiful, and I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a book so much on a purely mechanical level.
The theme of masters and puppets is always at play in the book, although never obtrusively. I found that I didn’t notice it so much as I was reading, but after I was done I find myself thinking about what Koja was saying a lot. Who is the master of who, indeed.
Really there is nothing I didn’t love about this book. The ending was perfect and bittersweet, the characters to a one were exquisitely crafted, and the dialogue was a delight to read. It had that witty nature to it that only books set in bygone centuries seem to be able to get away with, like a well crafted dance that we’ve forgotten the steps to. Plus, Istvan and Rupert! Talk about your epic romance. Seriously.
What else can I say, but don’t let the disturbing puppets keep you from this truly amazing book.
This book: I bought