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Stella Matutina
books and stories and musings, oh my!
46. Under the Poppy by Kathe Koja 
31st-Mar-2011 12:21 pm
Author: Kathe Koja
Publisher: Small Beer Press
Publication Year: 2010
Pages: 360
Status: library, dammit
Recommended By: iridiumfall

LibraryThing Info

This here’s my first 5-star book of 2011.

(A pause, now, so y’all can digest that. "Memory gave something 5 stars? Really? Is this the same Memory I know?")

When I give something 5 stars, it means I loved it to the point of incoherence.

You can see the problem here, yeah?

As if that weren’t enough, I want to gush. I want to be all OMG OMG OMG OMG OMG, and that would not be tonally appropriate. One simply cannot gush about a dark, serious sort of book. I shall restrain myself.

But if I were to gush, it might look something like this:

The Short, Gushy, Ungrammatical Version

ZOMG there are puppets and theatrical things and #teamboyskissing and unrequited love and requited love and THEATRE PORN which is maybe really cool if you’re me or my friend Dan and you used to joke about that sort of thing but maybe not so cool if you aren’t and you didn’t and the prose is twisty-turny so it took me about two minutes to read each page but it was also so awesome and so engaging that I DID NOT CARE and besides it sometimes felt like Koja was channeling du Maurier and I like du Maurier or at least that one du Maurier book I read and I started it pretty late at night and stayed up until two in the morning reading it and then I turned my light out but had to turn it back on so I could read MORE and then it kind of took over my life for a couple of days and it was so damned good that I almost wanted to quit reading it in case it suddenly stopped being good but I never did and it never did and OMG HOW AWESOME IS LUCY and I went into withdrawal when I finished and now I want to read something else that’s all historical and theatrical and has puppets and love stories and people making their own families and is just generally awesome but I can’t find anything so I’m grumpy.

Okay. Got that out of my system.

The Version That Makes Some Measure of Sense

A couple of weeks back, I told you about THE DAUGHTERS OF MOAB, a syntactically challenging book I failed to finish. Oddly enough, UNDER THE POPPY has much in common with TDoM, at least superficially. It’s in the present tense. Each sentence is long, twisty and unconventional. It took me (comparatively) forever to read. And yet, I couldn’t get enough of it. By the time I was twenty pages in, you couldn’t have pried me away.

I think it worked so well for me because it’s theatrical, above all else. I don’t just mean it’s intimately concerned with the theatre--though it is--but also that the story’s structure reminded me of nothing so much as a very good play. Koja disseminates information just as a playwright might. She generates tension between the past and the present, the things we know and the things we can only guess at. She explains very little. An awful lot goes unsaid.

And yet, we’re never adrift. (At least, I wasn’t.) We’ve got everything we need, right there on the page--or on the stage, if you want to look at it that way. The tension is an answer in and of itself, as it pushes the characters towards particular actions and reactions, and towards particular remembrances. They’re caught up in things beyond their control--first war, then the aftermath of same--but this remains, above all else, their story.

I enjoyed it all the more because neither the prose nor the plot is straightforward. In fact, it reads almost like two separate books. Act I is about a wartime brothel that provides its patrons with theatrical entertainment as well as sex. Act II picks up the story a few years later, when three of the characters from Act I have established themselves elsewhere and must cope with both the challenges of their new station and the wartime secrets that have come back to haunt them. There’s cause-and-effect, but the progression feels more chronological than thematic. One has the sense that anything could happen. Anything at all. I love this.

This sense of possibility permeates every part of the text. Even the setting is forever in question. Koja gives us plenty of clues as to the Poppy’s location, and to that of the unnamed city in Act II. Trouble is, none of them quite jive with the others. The book could take place almost anywhere, at any time in the late 1800s. (The jacket copy says the latter half is set in 1870s Brussels, but it lies.)

Then there’re the concrete theatrical elements. Puppet shows, musical numbers, tableaux, social performances... you can bet I ate it all up. Ain’t nothin’ I love more than the theatre, my friends. Nothin’.

...unless, perhaps, it’s familial themes. Or gorgeous historical atmosphere. Or people doing what they’re meant to do. Or the terrible, horrible possibility that destined lovers might end up with other people. All of which are also present, to varying degrees.

I loved the hell out of it, y’all, and I want you to read it. I’ll warn you, though: I’m pretty sure your reaction to Koja’s prose will dictate how you feel about the rest of the story. I also suspect certain plot points may not work as well for others as they did for me. It’s so worth a try, though, especially if your library has a copy. I want other people to read it. I'm already thinking of who I can give it to for Christmas.

5 stars – loved it to the point of incoherence

Strange Asides:

I don’t normally hear characters in my head as I read (or rather, I hear them as I would perform the role, were the book a play or a piece of reader’s theatre, so they all possess versions of my own voice), but I know just what Istvan sounds like. He has a kiwi accent. Huh.

Also! Puppets!

(I will now tell you entirely too many stories about puppets.)

When I was quite small, I read a book about some children who found relief from their stifling family life by making puppets and performing without their parents’ permission. I loved the hell out of this book, and decide I also wanted to become puppeteer behind my parents’ backs. I made two puppets (a Sultan and a Princess) and produced a short play based on Aladdin. (Aladdin was my favourite Disney movie for twenty years, until Tangled came along.) This was not a success, mainly because I forgot that puppets need joints. Mine were small balls of clay with strings coming out of the tops of their heads.


My parents and I used to go to Calgary at regular intervals, since I have approximately six thousand two hundred and twenty-two cousins there. One time, we visited a craft market in Kensington, this awesome little suburb that's full of things like craft markets and used bookstores with cats in the window (Toronto also has a Kensington, which operates on a similar model but is not to be confused with this one). I became enamored of a wizard puppet, but I was skint and he was $25, so I passed. Of course, I regretted it as soon as we were well away from there. BUT--small miracle coming up--he was still there when I returned, more than a year later! I shelled out the cash for him, and he is now my wizard puppet. I am exceedingly fond of him.

Many years later, my second year theatre class went to an adult puppet show in a small room in a grotty old office building in a dubious part of town. I don’t remember much about the show itself, beyond that it was good. Afterwards, a few of us waited outside for rides and the like. While we stood there, an obviously high man came up and told me I looked like Wendy the Good Little Witch. He wanted me to marry his son, Casper. I declined, but he kept on telling me things about Casper until this other obviously high man came up and told the first guy that the lot of us were karate students and he’d better watch his step around us.

A couple of years after that, my aunt gave me a DVD about carving puppets. I ought to watch it.

Quite recently, I became enamored of some Vietnamese water puppets that were in town for the Auckland Arts Festival. I was wicked eager to go see them, but tickets were more than $50. This saddened me. Why so expensive, water puppets? I could do $25, but $50 is outside my budget.

Age Breakdown:

I think Lucy’s younger than me, but everyone else seems to be at least my age in Act I and a few years older than me in Act II. I initially assumed they were all thirty-five at first (which I’ve realized is my default age, if the author doesn’t spell out exactly how old the characters are), but I’m pretty sure I was wrong about that. Hmm.

Challenge Stuff:

GLBT Reading - another for #teamboyskissing.

Other Reviews:

Experiments In Reading
Readin' and Dreamin'

Did I miss yours? Please let me know so I can link to it!

Back In the Day:
Steampunk Hanging Things
30th-Mar-2011 11:37 pm (UTC)
SHUT THE FRONT DOOR I'm so jealous you've read this! I heard about it from Vasilly and put it on order at the library IMMEDIATELY, but some irresponsible person didn't return it while I was on Spring Break and I was totally bummed!!!
30th-Mar-2011 11:48 pm (UTC)
I saw you and Vasilly talking about it on Twitter. I kind of wanted to butt in with some OMG IZ AWESUM READ RIGHT NOW!!!, but I restrained myself. :)
31st-Mar-2011 12:10 am (UTC)
Duly noted.
31st-Mar-2011 12:26 am (UTC)
Ooh, yes, with your Daphne du Maurier thing, I'm sure you'd be fine with Koja's prose!
31st-Mar-2011 02:00 am (UTC)
1) your review totally made me put this on the READ THIS RIGHT NOW list
2) A very very minor thing - it's Small Beer Press, not Small Bear. I only mention because if it were me, I would want to fix it. Also because Small Beer Press is my current Favorite, so I notice these things.
31st-Mar-2011 02:02 am (UTC)
Eek, typos! It's corrected now.
31st-Mar-2011 11:46 am (UTC) - Thank you
... for reading UNDER THE POPPY so thoroughly and passionately and fiercely and well. A book is a conversation and we just had a talk for the ages.

All my best,
Kathe Koja
1st-Apr-2011 08:30 pm (UTC) - Re: Thank you
Thank YOU for the amazing read!
31st-Mar-2011 04:38 pm (UTC)
Yay!! I'm so glad you liked it, after I raved about this all over your comment section!
1st-Apr-2011 08:33 pm (UTC)
I didn't think I'd be able to get my hands on it at first, but then my library amalgamated with a bunch of others, and one of them ordered it. I did a small jig when it arrived!
1st-Apr-2011 12:22 am (UTC)
Oo. Okay then! I will read it! But the internet says it is full of lots of sex and I am a bit squeamish about that. I mean after a while lots of sex starts sounding silly and I can't take the book seriously anymore, and if they use that thing where they refer to people's bits as their "sex" I throw up in my mouth a little bit. Does that happen? It's not a dealbreaker but it's best if I'm prepared.
1st-Apr-2011 08:46 pm (UTC)
Well, the first half is set in a brothel, so there's a fair amount of sex-with-other-people and on-stage-sex-with-puppets (ie, theatre porn). I'm afraid I don't recall if anyone's bits are called their "sex," but I can guarantee there are no "hot little nether-mouths" or "pulsating members." I always take note of those.
1st-Apr-2011 02:56 am (UTC) - Under the Poppy
I love when you love a book. Your enthusiasm for this one is contagious and a thank you from the author to boot. I wonder if someone will give me a copy for Christmas, but my birthday is sooner.

Your Mother
1st-Apr-2011 08:47 pm (UTC) - Re: Under the Poppy
I'm not sure this is quite your book, but I do have a couple of potential giftees in mind. I shall say no more in case they wander by.
3rd-Apr-2011 04:34 am (UTC)
Oh yeah, I now realize this has been on my list for a while now. I should move it to the top.
4th-Apr-2011 12:59 am (UTC)
It's most definitely top-of-the-list-worthy. I wish everything I read were this good.
3rd-Apr-2011 05:54 pm (UTC)
…I have to read this. Off to carve it onto the old reading list.
4th-Apr-2011 12:57 am (UTC)
Yessss! This's the perfect book for theatrical types. :)
21st-Apr-2011 03:41 pm (UTC) - UtP
When I first heard about this one I decided to wait for the paperback, but I think you've persuaded me to get it NOW. I'm especially attracted to the fact it's based in Brussels, where I have now.
25th-Apr-2011 09:55 pm (UTC) - Re: UtP
I hope you enjoy it! There's not an awful lot of in-Brussels action, alas, but there's plenty of period flavour.
13th-Sep-2012 03:42 pm (UTC)
This sounds amazing and totally weird and PUPPETS and MY LIBRARY HAS IT. I CAN GET IT TODAY JOY ABOUNDS
17th-Sep-2012 05:02 pm (UTC)
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