Review: Under the Poppy, by Kathe Koja

41punffajIL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_>>Published: October 2010

>>Finally got around to it: July 2015

If only she were Istvan’s true apprentice! or even Puggy’s, she could do a better job with the stagecraft than Jonathan, as willing as he is to fetch and build, he has no eye for it; he is an ear…. The idea makes her grin. Jonathan the ear of the Poppy, yes, as Puggy is the hands, as Omar is the fist, as Velma is the cooking pot. As Decca is the purse, as she and Laddie and the girls are, what, the holes…. And Mr. Rupert is the mind. An anxious mind, truly, see those furrows dug between his brows, even worse since Istvan came—and yet he is far more alive, now, his movements swifter, his eyes troubled and alight. Those two strike sparks from one another, anyone who looks can see that—

—though Decca is quick to deny it, quick and fierce and perhaps she, Lucy, ought not have said what she said yesterday, though everyone has a snapping point and the Lord knows Decca has trod hers times past counting. But still… She and Velma and Vera in the downstairs kitchen, sifting through the daily oatmeal for weevils, Vera complaining about the soldiers, they are too rough, too quick, not quick enough—until Decca, counting coal, flew down her throat: You’ll take what walks through the door and there’s an end to it! Or try your chances on the road! Vera crumpled into silence, Lucy flicked a weevil to the floor and, consolingly, Oh the road’s not so bad, with an eye to Decca, Mr. Istvan’s told me all about it. May be he’s on his way soon anyway, and he’ll take you along if you ask him nice.

***

Set in 1870s Brussels, right around the time of the Franco-Prussian war, Kathe Koja’s Under the Poppy is like an amorphous trip through time, politics, and the bed sheets of its many characters. It’s lyrical, at times stunningly beautiful, and only occasionally baffling—but not for reasons of narrative inconsistencies or decisions made within the confines of its story.

The titular Under the Poppy is a popular and somewhat successful brothel owned by Decca and Rupert. The two present themselves as siblings, though in reality Decca is very much in love with Rupert. Rupert’s love, however, is Decca’s true brother, Istvan, a man whose myriad names are matched only by his talents as a puppeteer. When Istvan rolls into town with his puppets—mecs, as they are called—his arrival sets off a chain of events that threaten to upset the Poppy’s station as a fulcrum around which soldiers and the slow start of war revolve. And as old loves are rekindled—and the potential for others outright extinguished—both Istvan and Rupert find they are at great risk of being used by those more powerful and affluent than they.

As admitted near the start of this review, I found myself at times confounded by the goings-on in Koja’s narrative. This was not, as I mentioned, due to problems with the plot, or even with the many relationships and dalliances that sometimes seemed to erupt from nothing more than a flirtatious glance. No, my confusion had to do specifically with Koja’s writing style, which can best be described as “labyrinthine.”

Make no mistake, Under the Poppy is gorgeously written, and there were moments where I felt utterly swept up in the effortlessness with which this world exists. However, the very precise rhythm and flow that Koja has crafted (which can be seen, to some small extent, in the section quoted at the start of this review), wherein multiple characters speak without paragraph or even sentence breaks, having entire conversations without ever breaking stride, has a tendency to overwhelm, sometimes requiring the re-reading of certain scenes. It’s a little like strolling through a hedge maze and being struck by the quality of the trim and the density of the growth, but finding oneself entirely lost as to one’s position within the whole, or even how much time has passed. As a result, while I adored my time with the book, its technical merits to some extent overshadowed its characters, whose moment-to-moment machinations I felt only partially invested in, and as such they seemed more loosely drawn than I’d have liked—products of style over substance.

There were some additional, smaller technical aspects that I found lessened my experience to some degree, such as the flagrant overuse of EM-dashes when segueing from paragraph to paragraph. It builds a certain amount of almost filmic tension, causing things to flow together almost without breaking thought, but after a while the tactic felt diluted, losing its impact as a result of simply being used too often.

But if I were to point a finger to my single largest complaint, it would be in how the novel jettisons the Poppy in its second half. Presented merely as a structure in which the characters all congregated, the brothel itself was in actuality a character, and a strong one, too, filled with a colour all its own. When in the second half of the book the narrative splinters to follow the lives of Lucy, Istvan, and Rupert, it loses some of what made it so compelling in the first place. And while the change in scenery is necessary for the aforementioned characters to grow, the Poppy’s loss—and the absence of Decca as well, a force in her own right—was most certainly felt.

In the second half, though, the character of Lucy grows considerably, becoming one of the standouts of the entire narrative. While in Istvan Decca saw trouble, and Rupert conflict (both internal and external), Lucy saw providence, opportunity to learn and become more than she was under the Poppy’s influence, and under Decca’s watchful eye.

And while the love triangle between Benjamin, Istvan, and Rupert never totally landed for me (because Benjamin was such a pale, almost two-dimensional character when compared to Istvan), I appreciated the organic manner in which Istvan and Rupert were once more brought together in the end. It was, however, appreciably simplistic when drawn against the love pentagon of the novel’s first half, with Decca being in love with Rupert, Rupert with Istvan, Istvan with his mecs, and Lucy with both Istvan and his puppets—and the possibilities represented therein.

For one reason or another I don’t tend to devote that much time to historical fiction. However, Under the Poppy was, from beginning to end, an enticing, incredibly well composed and enjoyable read, even if at times I felt as if I needed a road map through its characters’ individual plots, betrayals, and objects of affection. Truthfully, I don’t know if the strength of the narrative alone would be enough for me to recommend this book, but Koja’s writing is an experience in and of itself, and is certainly worth the price of admission. It elevates as it confounds.

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