A Modern-Day Fairy Tale That Works To Make Sense Of War

“We make up the sense of things after they happen,” a character in Marisa Silver’s new novel, Little Nothing, says. “We tell stories. This happened because of that. We string things together one by one so that it seems like there’s a reason to it all. But there’s no reason.” 

It makes sense that Agata, who tried for years to conceive with her husband Vaclav, would take a cynical view of the world. The couple lives in an unnamed war-torn country in Eastern Europe, and struggles to see clearly amid the blustery winds of modern Western thought. Centuries-old practices and beliefs are disrupted by peculiar technological and medical advancements, and magical thinking is called into question.

When they do finally give birth to a daughter, Agata and Vaclav are troubled to discover that she was born a dwarf ― a young woman with a conventionally beautiful face, but who struggles to find companionship among classmates in their small community. They love her anyway (this isn’t the evil stepmother sort of fairy tale) and she works alongside Vaclav in his plumbing business. But as the couple grows older, they start to worry about who will care for their daughter ― Pavla, meaning “Little” ― once they’re gone. This catalyzes a series of experiments, prescribed by a quackish doctor whose assistant, Danilo, discovers that he has feelings for Pavla.  

Danilo is ordered to build a table that will stretch Pavla out to the size of a woman of average height. He does, and finds that the neat process of building a tool puts his mind at ease. Somehow, the experiment works, but its consequences are dire: Agata and Vaclav are exiled from their community once word of their cruel treatments catch wind, and Pavla inexplicably grows fur on her face, beginning a slow, strange transformation from woman to wolf.

As in a fairy tale, Silver’s stories make logical leaps that are at first unsatisfying: what, exactly, caused Pavla to transform? And why did it happen? Is there a lesson to be learned? But the story explains itself as it unfolds; just as its often impossible to pinpoint a single cause of war, it’s difficult to trace a tragic, startling occurrence back to its root. Instead, the characters in Little Nothing find meaning and solace in coincidences, drawing connections where perhaps there are none.

The book, then, is both a parable and a full-fledged, richly told story, with clearly drawn characters who beckon us to come along with them on their journeys. We follow Pavla as she meets hunters and soldiers. We follow Danilo to the insane asylum he’s wrongly placed in. Along the way, Silver shows us her capacity for fleet-footed writing. Little Nothing is a quick, pleasurable read, but one that’s full of mysteries to stop and unpack.

The bottom line:

Silver’s book is magical and parabolic, but it doesn’t have the stark, curious language of a fairy tale. Instead, she adorns her fable with earthy imagery, crafting a rich setting and lovable characters. 

Who wrote it:

Marisa Silver is the author of Mary Coin, The God War, and No Direction Home. Her short story collections have been included on the New York Times Notable Book list, and the Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year list. 

Who will read it: 

Anyone interested in folkloric literature, like Tea Obrecht’s The Tiger’s Wife. Anyone interested in stories about Eastern European conflict, like Anthony Marra’s The Tsar of Love and Techno.

What other reviews think:

LA Times:Little Nothing celebrates not only the unruly and lost parts of all our lives but also the possibility of their reordering and comprehension.”

Washington Post: “Like [Angela] Carter, but in her own way, Silver manages to transform the fairy tale without losing its power.”

Opening lines:

“’Predstavte si kvetinu!’ the midwife yells, her voice reaching the baby as warped and concave sounds. ‘Pictuuure a flowaahhherrr.’” 

Notable passage:

“The town has suffered in the war, but the destruction is haphazard and irrational. A perfectly intact bookshop stands next to what was once a ladies’ dress shop but which is now the site of a massacre of mannequins, some armless or headless, all of them naked, having been stripped of the latest fashion by looters.”

Little Nothing
by Marisa Silver
Blue Rider Press, $27.00
Published Sept. 13

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