Friday, August 5, 2011

Book Review: The Curfew by Jesse Ball

A father and daughter try to live a quiet life in a city broken by fear and random violence in Jesse Ball's understated and beautiful new novel, The Curfew. Ball's fiction has been compared to the films of David Lynch and Alfred Hitchcock, and The Curfew proves no exception: it is an experimental, disjointed, and darkly-themed work. Indeed, Ball describes the "city and its occupants" early on as "a series of objects" connected by "violence," "pity, compassion," and "hope," yet are ultimately "hapless, benighted, discordant."

In this city called "C," a wrong look to the wrong person can mean death. The secret police are everywhere. Everyone lives in fear. William Drysdale - once a famous violinist - must put away his instrument after an uprising and subsequent crackdown on various freedoms, including artistic performances. He finds work as epitaphorist - writing the words on the recently deceased's tombstones; it's a very lucrative job. His daughter, Molly, who does not speak, goes to a school where she is "told repeatedly to repeat things." They live a mostly quiet life: William reads imaginary articles in the newspaper to Molly and plays riddle games with her in their house.

All they do, however, is overshadowed by the death of Louisa, William's wife, under mysterious circumstances four years earlier. In the city it is common for the dead to go missing and Louisa is one such case. Afraid of what might happen to himself and to Molly, William moves across town and quits his old friends. Ball's unadorned writing conveys William's helpnessness perfectly: "What does dying do to plans one makes with one's beloved? ...He sat in the stairwell. He went down the street and up again. He turned on the stove and turned it off."

On his way to an appointment, William meets a friend from his old life, who tells him there is a meeting later that night - a meeting of dissenters and revolutionaries - and that there is news of Louisa. Even though William knows he shouldn't go, he is determined to understand Louisa's disappearance, to put some kind of context around it. He leaves Molly with the neighbor, Mrs. Gibbons, who warns William about the dangers of being out after curfew. The curfew, however, is an unspecified time of night; indeed there is no official curfew except the government's "declaration: good citizens pass their nights abed."

The Curfew is told as a kind of three-act play, the first two acts being the events of the story itself, and the final act as a play within the narrative called "A Ladder of Rain and the Roof Beyond," written by Molly and Mrs. Gibbons' husband, a puppeteer (the play itself is reinacted by Mr. Gibbons' puppets). If there are issues with this novel, it's here. Molly's play reimagines the events of the story so far and, though there is enough invention to keep the reader interested, it can get fairly repetitive.

To Molly, her father - for all his solitude and unassuming-ness - is a puppet of his own making controlled by fear, subversion agents and dissenters, love for his daughter, the disappearance of his wife, the secret police, all of which is personified in her play. It is her attempt, in some small way, to understand her father, to also understand her mother and her death.

If the end is ambiguous, it is because some details are left out and some never fully explained; there is a certain beauty in mystery. Indeed, during the play, William drops Molly off at school and goes to sit by a lake where he sits "there for the entire day, staring into the water. There are figures in the water, but he cannot see them. He can only sense them. It is the same at the cemetery with all the bodies in the earth. One can feel them, but not see them. It is not that they are ghosts. It is not that impression. Simply that the center of so many worlds rest in one another's context." Herein lies the mystery and the beauty of The Curfew. Recommended; pairs well with a fine Pinot Grigio.

-Dustin Monk

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