Review: Under the Poppy, by Kathe Koja

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This was a birthday gift and I am forever indebted to the giver for introducing me to Kathe Koja‘s work.  I barely know where to start with this review because I am so enamored of both story and style that it’s difficult for me to separate the two.  And perhaps I shouldn’t even try. Koja’s writing is dense, often difficult.  She does things no writer should ever do, but she does them so adeptly that they feel right.  Her use of language is part of what makes “Under the Poppy” so, well… addictive, I would say since the phrase itself — under the poppy — means to be in an opium dream.  And Koja’s story does seem to qualify.

This is a murky, complicated story in which things are not always explained, people do not always have happy endings, and events are not always what they seem to be.  The first half of the story focuses mainly on a strange triangle.  There is Decca, the madam of the brothel known as Under the Poppy.  Rupert is her “front man,” a job that is a little bit of the businessman, a little bit of the bouncer, a little bit of the host.  Opinion is divided on these two; are they siblings?  Lovers?  Both?  Into the house comes a puppet master named Istvan who clearly raises some strong emotions in both Decca and Rupert.  Much of the first half of the book is the playing out of the emotional script between the three of them.  The second half begins as a new triangle: Rupert, Istvan and Lucy, but rapidly becomes a series of interconnected triangles, and new relationships that reiterate old ones in curious patterns.

Koja presents us with a cast of characters who are all-too-human, who do terrible things to each other, never seem to quite know what they want (Save for Istvan, and even he is brought up short on a few occasions.) People whose hearts break or simply stop beating.  And for all that there is a clear divide between the world of the brothel and the world of 1870s society, what is even more clear is that there really isn’t much difference between a whore and a nobleman.  As one character says, which of us hasn’t sold ourselves?

But in the end, the language is what carried me away.  It’s gorgeous, rich, quirky.  It flows along like a river, like a song.  And it requires patience and attention.  If you’re not willing to give both, don’t bother with this book; you’ll hate it.

I finished and very nearly went back to the beginning to start again, that’s how much of a hold the narrative had on me.  But I think I’d best put some distance between myself and these people before I reacquaint myself with them.  They’re all a bit dangerous, and I think I love them.

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