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The Town of Whispering Dolls

"What beauties these stories are.  Susan Neville has an imagination not only rich and strange but also very much a moral imagination.  How gentle and shocking is her view of what humans have done, and what a find this book is."—Joan Silber, author of Improvement

 

Neville (Fabrication, 2009, etc.) seduces a reader with language, but there's nothing romantic about her words. The book is haunted and haunting, not only by a group of roaming dolls, but by the consequences of American empire. "Grotto," the opening story, makes for a mysterious and disturbing kickoff: Narrated by "the mother of a girl who is now a doll," the story introduces a chorus of dolls that sing by removing their heads. "As you know, the heads are empty. And so the singing comes from the emptiness at the base of the head, like wind blowing over the neck of a bottle. I can't say where the breath comes from, but it always comes." The following stories illuminate the area's history, geography, and economy, providing context for the dolls and the people struggling to survive. With the mill shut down and farms displaced, the locals can sometimes earn a bit of money by dressing up in "head scarves and choir robes" to play captured civilians at the army base's fake Middle Eastern villages for training exercises. These circumstances are deranged, perhaps even more than "a plague of dolls" infiltrating a community already beset by poverty, drugs, and environmental degradation. Neville has a lack of cynicism while confronting these crises that makes the stories searing. The narrator of "The Plume" says matter-of-factly, "Why am I telling you this? Out of love, I suppose, for this little strip of human habitat,ion. Out of anger. Out of the wish to confess."--Kirkus Reviews

 

In Neville's bracing collection (after In the House of Blue Lights), residents of an unnamed Midwestern rust belt town develop unsettling relationships with dolls. In "Here," an older woman who's seen her town ravaged by factory automation and deaths from opioid addiction, describes the appearance of "a plague of dolls," humanlike and human-size figures who enter abandoned houses, filling the space of those who have left or died. In "Resurrection," one of the strongest stories, elementary school students assigned to take care of egg babies build homes for them in boxes with families peopled by paper dolls and toys from fast food restaurants. Their playacting becomes eerily realistic when the students begin to worry about their egg children dying; one student opens a hospital for injured eggs and finds herself overwhelmed with patients—eggs, dolls, and the students themselves.  --Publishers Weekly

 

"These stories are gems. Neville's prose feels sourced from poetry, with its deft metaphors and fleet movement between the real and surreal, leaving the reader in a kind of dream landscape, recognizable yet askew, replete with the chilly thrill of inhabiting a new world. This foreign yet familiar place is the so-called flyover country, our country's heartland, and at a time of decline, of abandonment, of aging, of death. The voices in these stories are eloquent and profound, personal and national, serving as a chorus, singing the complex song of loss and praise, the elegy."—Antonya Nelson, author of Funny Once: Stories and Bound: A Novel

Winner of the Catherine Doctorow Prize for Innovative Fiction from Fiction Collective 2. March, 2020.