The Small Backs of Children by Lidia Yuknavitch

Source: Public Library
Hardcover, 240 pgs
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The Small Backs of Children by Lidia Yuknavitch is carnal and grotesque in ways that are vastly unsettling and may be tough to read for many.  Told from a variety of artistic points of view, the story begins with a young girl whose world is literally atomized in war-torn Eastern Europe and the photograph of her that makes the career of one narrator.  While the girl and the photo play a major role in the story, they are not the crux of Yuknavitch’s story.  They are merely a vehicle through which she explores the selfish need for artistic expression and the distortions that emerge.

“We are who we imagine we are.
Every self is a novel in progress.
Every novel a lie that hides the self.
This, reader, is a mother-daughter story.” (pg. 11)

The narration is urgent, like a slapshot in the gut at nearly every turn. While the writer’s friends and family seek to save the girl from the life she has been thrown into after the death of her family, it is clear that a birth has happened. It is the birth of art within the gruesome world the girl inhabits, and it is the birth of connection beyond art and family ties.  The girl reaches from within and from without to recreate her life to be reborn — not as a victim, but as a warrior.

Pity the small backs of children, he heard her saying.  They carry death for us the second they are born.” (pg. 59)

The stories that begin at the heart of this girl, like the spokes in a wheel, turn and turn, spiraling out of control on a wagon that is hurtling toward a cliff, unless someone can stop it or redirect it. Will these players be destroyed? Will they be saved? Can this “blast particle … looking for form” endure the weight of these stories and their implications?

The Small Backs of Children by Lidia Yuknavitch pushed the envelope repeatedly, searching for the edge and spilling over it with its haunting images, desperate characters, and narcissistic art-making. It is the crucible of pain and suffering that molds us and pushes us to become, to move beyond the child of mere potential into something more tangible that can be criticized and critical. This crucible does not define us, however, unless we allow it to, and Yuknavitch is shoving readers toward a greater understanding of art and themselves.

**Beth Kephart reviewed this book, and I just had to get it from the library.***

About the Author:

Lidia Yuknavitch is the author of the widely acclaimed memoir The Chronology of Water and the novel Dora: A Headcase. Her writing has appeared in the Atlantic, the Iowa Review, Mother Jones, Ms., the Sun, the Rumpus, PANK, Zyzzyva, Fiction International, and other publications. She writes, teaches and lives in Portland, Oregon with the filmmaker Andy Mingo and their renaissance man son Miles. She is the recipient of the Oregon Book Award – Reader’s Choice, a PNBA award, and was a finalist for the 2012 Pen Center creative nonfiction award. She is a very good swimmer.