Reviewed by Hannah Grace Dierdorff
by Marisa Silver
Blue Rider Press
Hardcover: 352 pages, Sept 2016
Werewolves, a mental institution, and the novelty of indoor plumbing are not the archetypal ingredients for a fairytale. We expect the magical to be incongruous with reality—swans may be princesses, cloaks make their wearers invisible, straw change to gold. Yet each story holds its own internal logic, its own explanations for talking mirrors and frogs.
All these rules for fairytale are thrown out the window in Marisa Silver’s new novel Little Nothing. The book opens with the birth of a dwarf-girl to an aged couple, and their initial shock at the sight of their child signals the rest of the reader’s experience. There is nothing predictable about this narrative which follows a girl’s journey from quack doctors to a fortune-teller to a wolf pack to a battlefield.
Fortunately, Silver has the proficiency and deftness to craft a cohesive work of fiction from a seemingly fragmented series of events. Since The New Yorker published one of her short stories in 2000, Silver has proven her mastery in storytelling. Her novel Mary Coin was a New York Times Bestseller and her other novels and short story collections have garnered her a number of awards, including the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for fiction, a New York Times Notable Book of the year, and a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year. Little Nothing, though only recently published in September, continues Silver’s streak of widely acclaimed fiction; already it’s been named a New York Times Editor’s Choice and An O: The Oprah Magazine Fall Pick.
Reading the first few pages of this novel leaves no doubt about its acclaim. Silver stocks her sentences full of intricate descriptions and vivid metaphors so that the scenes and characters bloom before our eyes. In fact, the incredible amount of sensory detail in the work resembles poetry, and this strong grasp of language is what gives the book its allure and page-turning impetus. Although some sentences toward the beginning are made too long by the addition of unnecessary detail or metaphor, such awkward syntax soon disappears as the pace of the story picks up.
And certainly Silver loses no time in hurdling headlong down the narrative path. Though Little Nothing starts simply enough with the childhood of Pavala the dwarf-girl, the narrative is soon leaping over crevices and jumping from place to place with ease. Pavala’s disproportionate body earns her the disgust and prejudice of her own parents and the rest of the village, but as she grows from child to adult, she uses her quick wit and bright spirits to win the affection and trust of her small community. When she turns 16, however, her parents realize that their daughter’s size denies her any possibility of marriage or happiness.
Thus ensue numerous visits to witches and quack doctors who all prescribe strange remedies to transform Pavala’s odd, small body into that of a normal girl. At one visit, she meets a doctor’s assistant, Danilo, thus beginning the odyssey of Pavala’s transformations and Danilo’s quest to love her in her changing forms. The tale does not play out as one expects a fairytale to; Danilo never proclaims his love to Pavala, and she forgets her love for him as she forgets her own identity, lost in the multiple bodies and lives she experiences. Though the love story is one that primarily exists in Danilo’s mind, Silver nevertheless reveals what it means to love both oneself and others through the barrier of physical distance.
Even as Danilo is separated from his beloved, Pavala is separated from herself. Although Silver’s character development and attention to physical detail is what elevates the book above other fairytales or works of magic realism, we know less and less of Pavala as the story goes on. As she changes physical forms, her human consciousness and memory is lost, and she never regains the stories which form her identity.
This contrast between Pavala, who grows in strength despite her removal from her history, and the narrator’s emphasis on storytelling draws into question Silver’s intent behind the work. What is she trying to say about stories and the way they shape our identities? In many ways, Danilo’s response to Pavala’s magical transformations provides a pattern for how readers should view storytelling. Danilo is at times both curious and dubious about who Pavala really is, but he never stops searching for her nor knowing in his heart that she possesses a certain grace and transcendence.
And while Danilo’s desire for Pavala is rooted in questions about physical appearance, Little Nothing reveals that Pavala’s sexual appeal fundamentally stems from her acceptance of suffering. Each of her transformations is preceded by a violent act, and each of her shapes evokes oppression and persecution from the outside world. Her survival and flourishing in the face of suffering is what comes to define Pavala’s story, and thus her identity. Though she cannot remember her name or parents, her body remembers the pain she has experienced. In the end, it is this physical memory that gives her the comfort and strength to survive, eventually transcending her into something so beautiful and other that it changes the lives of everyone around her.
With these recurring themes and patterns of place, Silver establishes an internal logic to a book that otherwise often appears random and almost too wondrous. But because of her skill with both description and with the larger structure of the work itself, Silver is able to craft a coherent narrative that works both as a fairytale and a question. Little Nothing leaves a reader both entertained and puzzled; like a work of art should, it catalyzes a reevaluation of both self and world, of the forms of the body, and of the purpose of pain in creating identity and story.
About the reviewer: Hannah Dierdorff resides in the Pacific Northwest where she enjoys writing, collecting leaves, and going on as many hikes as possible. Her previous writing experience includes publication in the Wineskin, a literary magazine. She has also self-published a book of poetry on Amazon, and examples of her current work can be found on her personal blog, which is focused on finding wonder and worship in the everyday.