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A masterful literary talent explores the treacherous, often violent borders between war and sex, love and art With the flash of a camera, one girl’s life is shattered, and a host of others altered forever. . . In a war-torn village in Eastern Europe, an American photographer captures a heart-stopping image: a young girl flying toward the lens, fleeing a fiery explosion that A masterful literary talent explores the treacherous, often violent borders between war and sex, love and art With the flash of a camera, one girl’s life is shattered, and a host of others altered forever. . . In a war-torn village in Eastern Europe, an American photographer captures a heart-stopping image: a young girl flying toward the lens, fleeing a fiery explosion that has engulfed her home and family. The image wins acclaim and prizes, becoming an icon for millions—and a subject of obsession for one writer, the photographer’s best friend, who has suffered a devastating tragedy of her own. As the writer plunges into a suicidal depression, her filmmaker husband enlists several friends, including a fearless bisexual poet and an ingenuous performance artist, to save her by rescuing the unknown girl and bringing her to the United States. And yet, as their plot unfolds, everything we know about the story comes into question: What does the writer really want? Who is controlling the action? And what will happen when these two worlds—east and west, real and virtual—collide? A fierce, provocative, and deeply affecting novel of both ideas and action that blends the tight construction of Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending with the emotional power of Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Small Backs of Children is a major step forward from one of our most avidly watched writers.


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A masterful literary talent explores the treacherous, often violent borders between war and sex, love and art With the flash of a camera, one girl’s life is shattered, and a host of others altered forever. . . In a war-torn village in Eastern Europe, an American photographer captures a heart-stopping image: a young girl flying toward the lens, fleeing a fiery explosion that A masterful literary talent explores the treacherous, often violent borders between war and sex, love and art With the flash of a camera, one girl’s life is shattered, and a host of others altered forever. . . In a war-torn village in Eastern Europe, an American photographer captures a heart-stopping image: a young girl flying toward the lens, fleeing a fiery explosion that has engulfed her home and family. The image wins acclaim and prizes, becoming an icon for millions—and a subject of obsession for one writer, the photographer’s best friend, who has suffered a devastating tragedy of her own. As the writer plunges into a suicidal depression, her filmmaker husband enlists several friends, including a fearless bisexual poet and an ingenuous performance artist, to save her by rescuing the unknown girl and bringing her to the United States. And yet, as their plot unfolds, everything we know about the story comes into question: What does the writer really want? Who is controlling the action? And what will happen when these two worlds—east and west, real and virtual—collide? A fierce, provocative, and deeply affecting novel of both ideas and action that blends the tight construction of Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending with the emotional power of Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Small Backs of Children is a major step forward from one of our most avidly watched writers.

30 review for The Small Backs of Children

  1. 4 out of 5

    Angela M

    I loved this book in the beginning. I read an e-galley of this on my kindle and as I often do , I started to highlight passages that stand out for me or that get me in the gut . After a few pages , I realized that I had highlighted more than half of what I had read . The writing was gorgeous. From the first page , it is marked by an intensity , by language that was beautiful even as it was laden with metaphors of pain and grief and the brutalities of war and death . It's a different sort of read. I loved this book in the beginning. I read an e-galley of this on my kindle and as I often do , I started to highlight passages that stand out for me or that get me in the gut . After a few pages , I realized that I had highlighted more than half of what I had read . The writing was gorgeous. From the first page , it is marked by an intensity , by language that was beautiful even as it was laden with metaphors of pain and grief and the brutalities of war and death . It's a different sort of read. The characters (except one and she is not named until 2/3 through) are without names but it doesn't matter , the author makes you know who they are even without knowing their names : The Girl, The Writer, The Photographer , The Widow , The Poet,The Playwright , The Filmmaker , the Writer's Husband. I couldn't wait to see how The Girl and The Writer would connect . Then , I couldn't have been more disappointed! The direction of the book changed . The Poet's sexual encounters were way over the top for me -gritty and graphic , a bit much . And the Painter - really ? All of this seemed so blatantly contrived and I just didn't get . I wanted it to continue to be the story of The Girl and the Writer and it just wasn't. There are so many beautiful passages here and what I thought was a beautiful story was lost for me . The Kirkus review , which by the way recommends this as "buy now " , had it right for me with this comment : " .....Yuknavich is a gifted writer whose dizzying passages are often as compelling as they are grotesque. But it's not a pretty story and the novel's affected musings on the nature of art, gratuitous sexual excesses, and casual violence may overpower the grace of its words for some readers ." And it did for me . I've never rated a book I didn't finish but there's always a first time and this is it . I did get about 80% through and then I didn't care anymore. I have read a few of the rave reviews but none have really convinced me to read that last 20%. Maybe I'm just not a sophisticated enough reader to appreciate it . I give it 2 stars for the amazing writing and the possibility that it offered in the beginning. Thanks to Harper Collins and Edelweiss.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Debbie

    I would follow Lidia Yuknavitch anywhere. Or, at least, that’s what I thought when I started this phenomenal and bizarre trip through the maze of art, love, sex, and violence. It wasn’t those topics that got me going, it was the language. Every sentence seemed to fit snugly and sharply into my psyche, like my psyche had been waiting for these sentences all my life. Her writing stirs me up, makes me think, caresses my soul, elicits the visceral. In some way I don’t understand, she was tapping I would follow Lidia Yuknavitch anywhere. Or, at least, that’s what I thought when I started this phenomenal and bizarre trip through the maze of art, love, sex, and violence. It wasn’t those topics that got me going, it was the language. Every sentence seemed to fit snugly and sharply into my psyche, like my psyche had been waiting for these sentences all my life. Her writing stirs me up, makes me think, caresses my soul, elicits the visceral. In some way I don’t understand, she was tapping into my subconscious. I felt like a cult follower, drinking the Kool Aid. I was a puppy, following her. And I was delusional: I thought she was telling me not to be scared, to trust her. I thought she was holding my hand as we walked into the darkness. Suddenly she led me into a room where three women were doing grotesque and super disturbing S&M stuff to each other. There was no light and it was scary and gory and made me shiver and recoil, gasp and grind my teeth. I stayed, of course, I stayed, because I believed Lidia would take care of me. What I should have done, is run, my disgust and fear were so overwhelming. It was just one small chapter, but still… Okay, so it was time to re-evaluate. The amended version: I will follow Lidia Yuknavitch anywhere except S&M places. That’s okay. Whereas my mind is dusky dark, hers is pitch black. I like soft, she likes hard. And she’s telling me a thing or two. She's not saying “Come with me,” she's saying “Look at this, absorb it into your being. Don't look at me, I need you to look at the words and let them pull you in tight and loose. Shut some of it out if you need to. Follow where my words take you, into the deep holes of your mind, but make no mistake, you're on your own, baby.” She can still be my cult leader, I just have to exercise my free will (which I thought had evaporated) and choose not to go to the super scary dark places. Yes, I do wonder why that scene was included, as it seemed like the book would have been just fine without it. The bizarre thing is, after I decided I must not go into the bad rooms with her, I read a review that said it was wrong to think the author is my friend who will walk by my side. It blew me away that someone would mention the very thing I had been struggling with. It’s a strange little book. The characters have no names; they are artists who are referred to by the type of art they do. There’s a writer, photographer, poet, painter, filmmaker, playwright, and a young traumatized girl who starts the whole story in motion. The way the author intertwines their lives is pure genius. The plot is dreamlike and reads like a long prose poem. It’s not linear and it’s weirdly unemotional even though there is tremendous suffering. There are some alternative short endings, which I liked (but others may not). And the final chapter was tough for me to figure out; I had to reread it and I’m still not totally sure I get its full significance. More than anything, this book is about the power of art. The power of art is in the complex expression of it, and here, most times the artists’ expressions are brutal. The power also lies in their using art as a way to allow their minds to accept the horror of violence and war. And the book is about how art is so powerful it can make you want to live or die, yet it so powerful it can also sometimes rescue you. I know the graphic violence and sex, complete with lots of descriptions of bodily fluids, will turn off many people. And some will think the language is affected. Not me. It’s my very favorite book of 2015. If you are one of the fans, check out Yuknavitch’s astonishing memoir, The Chronology of Water. Lidia Yuknavitch has my ear, my heart, and my soul. Amen. Note to Kindle and iPad users: There are some serious formatting issues in a two-column chapter—truncated text, and pages that disappear—which of course caused much panic and anger. I was able to make the chapter totally readable by switching to the smallest possible font. Beware.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Debbie "DJ"

    This is one of those rare books that I cannot describe, only to say that it hit me at gut level. Sometimes so much so that I had to set it aside, as it had it's way with me. It is a book about artists and their art, but the characters do not have names, simply, the photographer, the painter, etc. Their lives become intwined but artistry is everything. The plot is one of the inner journey, and with it there can be violence. The writing is exquisite, raw, and filled with meaning. Be warned This is one of those rare books that I cannot describe, only to say that it hit me at gut level. Sometimes so much so that I had to set it aside, as it had it's way with me. It is a book about artists and their art, but the characters do not have names, simply, the photographer, the painter, etc. Their lives become intwined but artistry is everything. The plot is one of the inner journey, and with it there can be violence. The writing is exquisite, raw, and filled with meaning. Be warned however, there is sex that is graphic, intense, and completely creeped me out. This was an experience for me, I was taken to places I've never explored. A book I will never forget!

  4. 4 out of 5

    Hannah

    I do love postmodernism when it is done right - and it is done brilliantly here. There is just something I adore about authors willing to play with genre, with conventions, and with style. The first few chapters had me glued to the page and I knew I was reading something extraordinary. I loved this a lot but the last quarter did not quite work for me. Juxtaposing the horror of war in Eastern Europe with the more quiet horror of grief of an US-American writer, Lidia Yuknavitch shows the whole I do love postmodernism when it is done right - and it is done brilliantly here. There is just something I adore about authors willing to play with genre, with conventions, and with style. The first few chapters had me glued to the page and I knew I was reading something extraordinary. I loved this a lot but the last quarter did not quite work for me. Juxtaposing the horror of war in Eastern Europe with the more quiet horror of grief of an US-American writer, Lidia Yuknavitch shows the whole range of human emotions in a way that is more stylized than true to life but still feels completely real and honest. Her short chapters read like short stories but still connect to a whole that is greater than its parts. She made me gasp audibly, choke back tears and suppress laughter, she made me feel and she made me think. I am not going to try to give a synopsis - because this book's plot is nearly irrelevant as it takes the backseat to vignettes of human behaviour and of pure art. This book is beyond impressive and I am already excited to read other books written by Lidia Yuknavitch. Sometimes you just know that an authors is bound to be a favourite - and this was one of those cases for me. She writes the kind of clever fiction that still has a human heart at its core that I just adore beyond measure.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Rae Meadows

    I admired a lot of what Yuknavitch did with this book, the layering of characters, the spinning of plot, but I did not love it. She is a formidable talent on the sentence/image/poetic level, and I could see what she was going for with the focus on the body--violence/sex/love/life/art--but there were things that undermined the power of the book for me. I felt like the graphic sex was supposed to seem transgressive, but for me it felt only gratuitous. And one scene--if you've read the novel, the I admired a lot of what Yuknavitch did with this book, the layering of characters, the spinning of plot, but I did not love it. She is a formidable talent on the sentence/image/poetic level, and I could see what she was going for with the focus on the body--violence/sex/love/life/art--but there were things that undermined the power of the book for me. I felt like the graphic sex was supposed to seem transgressive, but for me it felt only gratuitous. And one scene--if you've read the novel, the painter's paint orgy--seemed utterly ridiculous. Maybe I'm jaded. But it was hard for me to make the leaps required for this book to feel wholly satisfying. Don't get me wrong, I like the challenge of the narrative, and the playing with the novel form. I felt the strongest parts were about the Eastern European girl and the writer. The parts about the filmmaker, the playwright, the photographer, the poet. Meh. I didn't care that much. And the painter? Please. But I will say that I am very interested to read Yuknavitch's memoir The Chronology of Water. I think she is intense and smart and has powerful things to say.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Julie Christine

    It is the little girl from Trang Bang, a village north of Saigon, running naked and screaming from pain and bombs and napalm. Her name is Kim Phuc. It is the electrifying stare of an Afghan teen, her head wrapped in a blood-red scarf, her green eyes pulsing with anger and fear at the Soviet invasion that has decimated her home. Her name is Sharbat Gula. It is the Sudanese child dying of starvation, stalked by a vulture. We don’t know the child’s name or what became of her. The photojournalist It is the little girl from Trang Bang, a village north of Saigon, running naked and screaming from pain and bombs and napalm. Her name is Kim Phuc. It is the electrifying stare of an Afghan teen, her head wrapped in a blood-red scarf, her green eyes pulsing with anger and fear at the Soviet invasion that has decimated her home. Her name is Sharbat Gula. It is the Sudanese child dying of starvation, stalked by a vulture. We don’t know the child’s name or what became of her. The photojournalist took his own life two months later. These captured moments are real; they stand as records of war and poverty and our lack of humanity. They are images bound to the politics that created them. Do we call them art? These are girls whose bodies were used as canvases of emotion. Looking at them from our safe remove, we shake our heads and tut-tut. “So sad," we say. "Someone should do something.” And then we turn away. From these stories of children caught in the world of men, Lidia Yuknavitch adds an imaginary other: a girl airborne like an angel as her home and family are atomized behind her, in a village on the edge of a Lithuanian forest. Like the iconic images above, this photo travels around the world, garnering gasps and accolades. A copy of it hangs on the wall of a writer’s home—she is the photographer’s former lover—haunting the writer as she moves from one marriage to another, birthing a son, becoming pregnant with a daughter. The photographer wins a Pulitzer and moves on, to other conflicts, other subjects, other lovers. We learn, much later, that the girl’s name is Menas. On the surface, the premise of The Small Backs of Children seems simple, the plot a means to distinguish this work as a novel rather than a prose-poem. The writer lay dying of grief in a hospital in Portland. She cannot climb out of the hole created by the birthdeath of her stillborn daughter. In an effort to save her soul, her friends determine the girl in the photograph—now a young woman, if she is still alive—must be found and brought to the States. Two lives saved. But this daughterless mother and motherless daughter do not meet until near the end. And the end could be one of many that Yuknavitch offers up, as if to say, “Does it matter? There is no end. Not even in death is there an end.” What happens in between is a howl. A series of howls, ripped from the body in ecstasy and terror. The Small Backs of Children is an exploration of the body, the body as art, the body as politic, all the ways we use and lose control of our bodies, or have them used against us. Yuknavitch shocks again and again, until it seems these characters are holes into and out of which pour the fluids of sex and addiction, art and death. Nearly all but the writer, her filmmaker husband, and the girl (mirror-selves of the author, her husband and their ghost-daughter) seem driven by their basest desires, or become victims of their own obsessions. And although there is only one Performance Artist, they all seem to be playing at their artistic selves, conflating art and life. The premise may be transparent, but the execution of the plot—the shifting of the narrative between voices, countries, and eras—becomes something political and murky, a metafiction loop of invented words, fragile sound bites, and acts of literary revolution. Virginia Woolf is a palimpsest beneath the narrative. As in The Waves, The Small Backs of Children is told through several voices that loop and leap in quicksilver language. Yet unlike Woolf’s Bernard, Susan, Rhoda, Neville, Jinny, and Louis, we know Yuknavitch’s characters only by their artistic occupations: The Writer, The Filmmaker, The Poet, The Playwright, The Performance Artist, The Photographer, and, perhaps standing in for Percival, The Girl. This unnaming keeps us at a distance. But to read Yuknavitch is to know she honors experimental forms and shoves away convention. Gustave Flaubert, arguably the creator of the modern novel, stated, "An author in his work must be like God in the universe: present everywhere and visible nowhere." What would Flaubert make of Lidia Yuknavitch? For in The Small Backs of Children, the author is visible everywhere. In each word and image and scene, we inhabit her visceral presence. If you scooped up and ate her body-memoir The Chronology of Water, you will recognize not only the themes of child loss, savage sexuality, rape, addiction, the vulnerability of girls, the release and capture of water, you will recognize scenes and words and images. It is as if we are in a continuation of Yuknavitich’s memoir, swimming in her stream of consciousness. She transcends the notion of the novel and enters something larger: the intersection of prose and poetry and memoir and reportage. And the reader spins around this crossroads, trying to make sense of it all. The language propelled me forward, even as I felt the story spinning me away. Like a work of visual art that is meant to provoke, that is devoid of answers, redemption, resolution—the photograph of a young girl in a moment of terror or loss say—The Small Backs of Children drained me until I was a shell without reason, reduced to a body quivering with animal emotion.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Kristin

    Part of me just wants to say this wasn't the book for me. But a larger part of me is saying, "Who the heck is this book for?!" As advertised, it is about the intersection of violence, sex, and art. But it all felt largely gratuitous. The style was this forced literary thing where all of the characters had jobs instead of names - The Writer, The Photographer, The Poet, The Playwright, The Filmmaker, The Painter, and, central to the story, The Girl. Firstly, if a majority of artists are so Part of me just wants to say this wasn't the book for me. But a larger part of me is saying, "Who the heck is this book for?!" As advertised, it is about the intersection of violence, sex, and art. But it all felt largely gratuitous. The style was this forced literary thing where all of the characters had jobs instead of names - The Writer, The Photographer, The Poet, The Playwright, The Filmmaker, The Painter, and, central to the story, The Girl. Firstly, if a majority of artists are so self-involved and downright ridiculous, I'm glad I don't know many. (The few I do know couldn't be more different.) Narcissism runs rampant - well, I guess they're more in love with their art than themselves, but they are also oversexed in a selfish sort of way. And though the horror of The Girl's life is treated as art in the story in a way that is clearly supposed to be social commentary, it still felt like Luknavitch was doing the same thing. For those doing readers' advisory, major red flags here: graphic sex and violence (both involving way more bodily fluid than I want to read about) as well as lots of language. Yikes.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Ingrid Lola

    I need to find a small photo of Lidia Yuknavitch so I can worship it.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Bill

    4(enthusiastic)STARS! Wow! ***deep breath*** I finished this book several days ago and only now am I able to corral my thoughts, harness them, slow them down to the point where I can capture them in words on paper. The challenge to sharing my thoughts is they incessantly changed, expanded, contracted, twisted and turned long after absorbing the final page. This book was hauntingly evocative. Yeah that’s the word I was looking for ... haunting. Eerily haunting. Corporeally sorrowful??? I loved this 4(enthusiastic)STARS! Wow! ***deep breath*** I finished this book several days ago and only now am I able to corral my thoughts, harness them, slow them down to the point where I can capture them in words on paper. The challenge to sharing my thoughts is they incessantly changed, expanded, contracted, twisted and turned long after absorbing the final page. This book was hauntingly evocative. Yeah that’s the word I was looking for ... haunting. Eerily haunting. Corporeally sorrowful??? I loved this book. I hated this book. I was repulsed and intrigued, fascinated. I knew exactly what was happening. I was confused, frustrated and lost. It’s an exploration of creation through art, destruction by war; the destruction of women. It speaks to sex, violence, suffering. A chimera of sex and violence. Love and pain; hurt. Violence for violence to cure suffering. This book involves a group of American artists and the misogynistic violence of Eastern Europe. At times it was crystal clear, grotesquely poignant. At times I had no idea what it meant or what was happening. It meant nothing and so many different things at the same time. Vague as a dream; disturbing as a nightmare. Laced with symbolism and metaphors; statements about men and war and American indifference. For me this book is a work of art in and of itself. Literary realism, abstraction and surrealism all blended together, fading in and out of focus and intensity, like a mural size painting at an art museum, subject to interpretation in so many different ways. [image error] My feelings and emotions ebbed and flowed with changes in the writing, the voice, the circumstance, the interminable link between sex and violence, the misogynistic violence against women and girls during times of war and occupation, the art, the intense sense of loss, liberation. [image error] I am haunted but mesmerized. I needed to know about The Girl. [image error] (view spoiler)[The Photographer captures an image of The Girl as she steps out of the front door of her house, just as a bomb atomizes her house along with her father, mother and brother. The Girl flees into the woods, through a rebel camp, to the house of The Widow, a house of art. The Widow has lost her husband to a prison camp of war. The Girl has lost her family to the munitions of occupation. Childless mother; motherless child. The Girl is just ten years old, raped seventeen times by soldiers since she was six. The Writer was a mother for nine months before she gave birth to a dead daughter. When the picture of The Girl arrives at the editor’s office and forwarded to The Writer, she descends into The White. The Playwright, The Filmmaker and The Poet hatch a plan to bring The Girl to America, to bring The Writer back from The White. The story has four alternate endings – you pick the right fit! (hide spoiler)] The story takes place in Eastern Europe but it’s never revealed exactly where. There are references to Siberia, Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, Tambov Russia and Russian Khlyst sects. It doesn’t really matter. Pick your poison of sexual violence as a weapon of war against women and girls – Kosovo, Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia, Chechnya, Georgia ... the list goes on and on and on ... “What she thinks and feels is this: This is a world of men. They come into your country, they invade your home, they kill your family. They turn your body into the battlefield – the territory of all violence – all power – all life and death. And we take it. We do. We keep taking it. We have lost track of the reasons we do not slaughter the world of men, but we do not. Yes, there are good men. She sees the face of her father. She sees how the filmmaker loves the writer. She sees the yet un-written life of the writer’s son. She sees her … brother. Beautiful smear. But it is the world of men that creates pure destruction. And this is a truth we cannot bear: Since we bear them into the world, we cannot kill them. Cannot be done with them. Cannot exile them into oblivion. We simply keep going, letting them enter us and seed us, unable to stop loving the meat and drive of them, for without men, would the world even spin in its orbit? The action of man-without it, would there simply be a hollowed-out black hole? Empty space?” This book is a work of art. Art is subject to our interpretation of the world and the people in it. There are some extraordinarily grotesque scenes of sexual violence, torture, S&M and voyeuristic masturbation that by themselves would be way, way, way outside my comfort zone. But in the context of art and the underlying themes of this book it all fits together to tell the story. I had a ton of questions along the way so I’m thinking this would make an outstanding book club read. If you’ve read this book, we have to talk!

  10. 4 out of 5

    Tania

    The writing was good, but I found all the characters extremely narcissistic (except maybe for the film-maker and the widow). No names were provided for any people or places, except America - which is bashed (along with most men) through-out the book. As a non-American I wasn't quite sure what to make of this - every country has it's own problems I think. To be fair I think that because I don't agree with the main message - Art is more important than love, this probably colored my perception of The writing was good, but I found all the characters extremely narcissistic (except maybe for the film-maker and the widow). No names were provided for any people or places, except America - which is bashed (along with most men) through-out the book. As a non-American I wasn't quite sure what to make of this - every country has it's own problems I think. To be fair I think that because I don't agree with the main message - Art is more important than love, this probably colored my perception of the whole book. Lastly, I don't normally have a problem with sex in books, but this was way too much for me. I may just be too vanilla for this author :)

  11. 4 out of 5

    christa

    You know how sometimes you’re reading a book and a moody art dude goes into his studio and begins a complicated choreography that starts with covering his genitals in paint, segues into self-penetration with a paint-stained digit and ends with him furiously spilling his seed on the canvas -- it’s sort of his signature -- and you’re like heaving and breathless, not because it’s hot (it’s not) but because it’s Art, man. And truth. And life, no death. Clutch book to chest. Applaud author’s ability You know how sometimes you’re reading a book and a moody art dude goes into his studio and begins a complicated choreography that starts with covering his genitals in paint, segues into self-penetration with a paint-stained digit and ends with him furiously spilling his seed on the canvas -- it’s sort of his signature -- and you’re like heaving and breathless, not because it’s hot (it’s not) but because it’s Art, man. And truth. And life, no death. Clutch book to chest. Applaud author’s ability to, like a maestro, draw such a visceral response. Yeah, that’s sort of what it was like to read Lidia Yuknavitch’s other books. But with her latest, “The Small Backs of Children,” it feels self conscious and the sort of scene that smokes it’s grandmother’s pipe and always wears a hat and thinks smiling is so 90s. And then there was that moment when I squinted and wondered why I wasn’t buying into it like I had with her past stuff and why it had that silly implausibility of a late-2000s Chuck Palahniuk. “The Small Backs of Children” opens with the scene where a young girl goes through a self-guided natural ritual that marks a line in the snow between then and now. An animal has been caught in a trap and she wanders out of the house in the snow to the scene of the crime, where she finds him chewing off his own arm. After he has limped away, she sort of baptises herself in a mixture of his blood and her urine and yelps at the moon. Rewind: She’s the subject of a famous image caught by a photographer who just happened to click while the girl’s entire family was atomized behind her. The girl, who has been for years abused by soldiers, finds a barn to hide and emerges slowly into a friendship with the widow owner of the space. The photographer, meanwhile, has this famous photograph -- and a writer friend who cannot forgive her for not helping the girl -- especially considering a tragedy the writer has experienced. When the writer ends up hospitalized and catatonic, her art friends band together to find the girl in the photo and to bring her back to the writer. There are all sorts of other messes going on with relationships and pasts and presents and it’s confusing keeping straight the relationships between the Writer and the Filmmaker and the Photographer and the Playwright and the Poet and sisters and husbands and friends and lovers. It’s not all bad, for the most part it’s just fine. Experimental, sure, I don’t need it to be linear or to have a single, this-is-it ending. But every once in a while the piece of plot is just so jarring that it feels like someone is rubbing your face in urine-soaked blood snow and yelling FEEL IT.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Paquita Maria Sanchez

    More specifically: the small back of one Eastern European child who is made to carry the dead-weight of an otherwise Zach Braffian cast of vapid characters when she's not on her back getting raped by yet another stranger. Yes, both the rape and sex scenes seemed like shock for shock's sake, and since rape and sex scenes made up the majority of the book, that's even more of a problem than usual. I'm not scared off by disturbing content, but it needs to serve more of a purpose than as a shortcut to More specifically: the small back of one Eastern European child who is made to carry the dead-weight of an otherwise Zach Braffian cast of vapid characters when she's not on her back getting raped by yet another stranger. Yes, both the rape and sex scenes seemed like shock for shock's sake, and since rape and sex scenes made up the majority of the book, that's even more of a problem than usual. I'm not scared off by disturbing content, but it needs to serve more of a purpose than as a shortcut to making the scene/character seem interesting and complex and tortured. I'm not naïve enough to think there isn't senseless violence in the world, but even the randomness of cruelty is a theme that has been done to death. And hey, did you know that the line between sex and violence is kinda blurry? Oh, you did? Wait, did you just...fall asleep? Rude. Anyway, the characters were so one-dimensional it was like they were lifted straight from the game "Art School Clue." And it was The Painter in The Studio with The Paintbrush (up his ass).

  13. 4 out of 5

    Dianah

    Lidia Yuknavitch revisits the aching wound of her sillborn child in The Small Backs of Children. While fiction, this moving novel reads like non-fiction -- it is so personal. Yuknavitch has the rare and almost magical ability to write beautifully about things that are horrific. Gathering together the stories of several characters, each playing a part in an elaborate plot to save their friend, Yuknavitch delivers a gorgeous, heartbreaking tale of friendship, guilt, redemption and healing.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Amber

    This book was so creative and well written and I thought that it was going to end up being a 4 star read, but it just didn’t pan out that way for me. Some of the elements that I loved in the beginning turned out to be too over the top for me. It seems like there is a fine line with whether or not these elements make the book feel pretentious. For instance, why doesn’t the author give characters names? They are known as the painter, the writer, the filmmaker, etc. Is this a way to remind us that This book was so creative and well written and I thought that it was going to end up being a 4 star read, but it just didn’t pan out that way for me. Some of the elements that I loved in the beginning turned out to be too over the top for me. It seems like there is a fine line with whether or not these elements make the book feel pretentious. For instance, why doesn’t the author give characters names? They are known as the painter, the writer, the filmmaker, etc. Is this a way to remind us that their art is what defines them or is Yuknavitch just being quirky? I don’t know. Also, is the book about the girl and the writer or is it about all the artists and how they tied into the story? I’m not sure. I wanted more of the story about the writer and the girl. Also, I didn’t quite see the point of all the blood and sex in the story. Maybe I was missing a metaphor or two. When I was reading the book, I liked it, but I was never really thinking about the book when I wasn’t reading it and I was kind of ready to be done with it at 80% or so. And this wasn’t a very long book. The ending too, was very disappointing for me. It was like she resolved the story and then unresolved it and left the reader guessing. Maybe it’s me. Maybe the book is just too smart for me. Lidia Yuknavitch is definitely very intelligent and knows how to write and I would like to try reading something else of hers in the future. This book was a beautiful strange bird that was a little too fierce and bloody for me.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Melissa Crytzer Fry

    I don’t know where to begin… except that there’s an obvious reason I didn’t rate this book. I couldn’t. I didn’t know how… In some respects, it’s a 5 – maybe even higher, if such a rating existed – for the sheer beauty of the language alone, and the ability of the author to sculpt poetic metaphors that describe pain in the most unique of ways. (I was furiously highlighting passages throughout the first 30% of the book). The naming conventions of the characters – The Writer, The Playwright, The I don’t know where to begin… except that there’s an obvious reason I didn’t rate this book. I couldn’t. I didn’t know how… In some respects, it’s a 5 – maybe even higher, if such a rating existed – for the sheer beauty of the language alone, and the ability of the author to sculpt poetic metaphors that describe pain in the most unique of ways. (I was furiously highlighting passages throughout the first 30% of the book). The naming conventions of the characters – The Writer, The Playwright, The Poet, The Performing Artist, The Painter – speak volumes that this is a story about art and its importance. The structure of the novel further reinforces that: some scenes written with stage directions, an entire section written as if a movie were being filmed, some in parallel poetic verse. This IS art and was brilliant. Few writers could pull it off. And yet… In other respects, the book is at the lower end of the star-chain for me – because, in the end, I’m not even sure it was a novel. The author’s own acknowledgements indicate that this novel grew from a poem. And when you read the jacket copy, the book suggests a promise of a traditional story – a girl, a woman – that may unfold. And a story does unfold … it’s just not the one you expect (as you are in the minds of all of these artists), and one that is not told in traditional format. The novel is more a statement about art and artists, the need for art, the healing power of art, maybe even art as love … I think. Toward the end, the part of the book I most wanted to learn about (and, honestly, why I kept reading) – The Girl – was summarized, rushed through, and then infused with political commentary that felt like it came from nowhere. I was left scratching my head. Perhaps the meaning of this book is lost on me. It is more a metaphor and social statement – about what I’m still unsure – woman’s objectification and her role in society, the misunderstood artist, the instant gratification of Americans who live in excess and think they can fix foreign conflict by virtue of their “Americanness” (these aren’t my sentiments, but what I gleaned from the author)… I confess: my intellect just might not have been great enough to grasp the brilliance of this book. I don’t have a poetry background, so may also be missing the structural significance of the choices the author made as they relate to poetry and verse… Make no mistakes: This book is literary – VERY – the kind of book literature majors will be reading and dissecting in class. And it is beautiful in so many instances, and gritty and downright difficult to read. And within the pages, so much is left to interpretation (How I would love to hear the author’s own words about ‘What was the overall message you hoped readers would walk away with?’ ‘What did you mean by this?’ ‘What does that scene signify – why was it even there in the first place?’) And finally… Take this warning: If you are squeamish about sex scenes, don’t read this book. It’s not just typical sex. There is violence, there is heterosexual intercourse, homosexual, and downright violent sex. There is rape. As others have pointed out, there is more body fluid in this book than any I’ve ever read. Many of the descriptions honestly could be considered literary porn. So many of these scenes are truly difficult to read for their violence. And perhaps this is the biggest question niggling at my mind: Why? Every single character is hyper-sexualized and/or drug fueled, obsessed with sex nearly every moment. Surely the author does not mean to stereotype artists in this fashion, though to be sure, the world’s great artists often live lives of mental anguish and live sex- and –drug-fueled lives. But certainly not all. I’m still trying to understand…(Is this the author’s way of showing our ‘animal’ nature??) These are the reasons I felt I couldn't rate this book... I don't know HOW to think about it, yet I am STILL thinking about it, wondering ‘what did that mean?, and seeking themes and symbolic significance… so maybe this IS the mark of an exceptional book… one that keeps you thinking, one that makes your skin crawl, one that makes you cringe, and one that paints pictures with the skillful use of words, and one ultimately that tugs at your heart for the pain of it. If you love literary fiction and, as others have called it, “experimental” writing, and can stomach violence and inordinate amounts of bodily fluids… give it a whirl. Reading this book challenged me, and for that I am grateful.

  16. 4 out of 5

    CaseyTheCanadianLesbrarian

    A beautiful, brutal book about love, (kinky) sex, grief, war, violence, and art. I love Yuknavitch's writing, such raw use of language rooted in women's bodies. Above all the novel concludes that making art is the only refuge we have in the face of the world's atrocities, whether that means large scale military occupation or individual sexual assault. This is a fierce, difficult, but rewarding book. For fans of Kathy Acker and Jeanette Winterson.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Amy Gentry

    I loved Yuknavitch's "body memoir" The Chronology of Water, but could not deal with this novel. Where her memoir always felt grounded in real flesh and blood, here the bodies are abstracted and turned into painfully literal (and clumsily written) metaphors. I'm particularly uncomfortable with the way a distant conflict (probably Bosnia, although this book is allergic to proper nouns so we don't know) is used here. Without specificity, the messy, gutsy glory of Yuknavitch's prose falls flat, and I loved Yuknavitch's "body memoir" The Chronology of Water, but could not deal with this novel. Where her memoir always felt grounded in real flesh and blood, here the bodies are abstracted and turned into painfully literal (and clumsily written) metaphors. I'm particularly uncomfortable with the way a distant conflict (probably Bosnia, although this book is allergic to proper nouns so we don't know) is used here. Without specificity, the messy, gutsy glory of Yuknavitch's prose falls flat, and the characters are walking symbols. I'll keep reading Yuknavitch because she's unafraid to try different forms, but this one didn't work for me. My full review at the Chicago Tribune: http://www.chicagotribune.com/lifesty...

  18. 5 out of 5

    Meredith Alling

    I finished this book and clutched it to my chest and I'd probably get it surgically attached there if I could. Brutal and beautiful and hot with life.

  19. 5 out of 5

    xTx xTx

    Breathtaking, in so many ways. I need to read this again. And, again. Thank you, Lidia for...once again...bringing us such beauty and truth.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Pattie

    I disliked nearly everything about this book. To begin, the author refers to the characters, not by their given names, but by their profession: playwright, filmmaker, poet, painter, and the character they become consumed with "saving" as simply the "girl". As a woman, I would describe this book is angry feminist, noting this quote: "... for there is no girl we are not always already making into a woman from the moment she is born -- making a city in the dirt next to the boot of a man. It could I disliked nearly everything about this book. To begin, the author refers to the characters, not by their given names, but by their profession: playwright, filmmaker, poet, painter, and the character they become consumed with "saving" as simply the "girl". As a woman, I would describe this book is angry feminist, noting this quote: "... for there is no girl we are not always already making into a woman from the moment she is born -- making a city in the dirt next to the boot of a man. It could be rage or love in his feet." The book brings every character back to animalistic urges, sex, menstruation. Everyone has been used, abused, raped, or is pleasuring themselves again and again and it is written about in graphic, crass detail. In addition, although it is noted by the author that one of the characters is bisexual, three others appear to have had lesbian or homosexual encounters in their lives or longings for someone of the same sex. Even throw away characters mentioned in passing (a courier who handles a package) misses the importance of something because he is busy pleasuring himself during business hours. Who are these freaking people? The story is supposed to play out like a performance art piece but I was utterly disgusted by its approach and thought that people in life don't act this way -- and I am talking about outside of the sexual aspects of this novel. The central part of this novel (which doesn't occur until halfway through) is essentially about a a filmmaker, poet and performance artist locating a girl captured in print by the photographer at the exact moment that her home and family are destroyed by a bomb. The image of her flying through the air in survival is the only thing the writer who has suffered great loss can cling to in order to survive. So her friends travel to Eastern Europe to "save" this young girl MANY years later and bring her home to live with the writer. Sounds strange? Well, of course it is. Add in an extra rape, a suicide, and some graphic descriptions of how menstrual paintings are created(!) and BAM you have one heck of a wackadoodle story. I have read some rave reviews on this book and perhaps I am just not artsy enough for the style. I can live with that. Kudos to the author for having touched something in a lot of readers. I just don't happen to be one of them.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Jaime

    No words I have can do justice to this beautiful, devastating, gutting book. The interwoven stories, the truths and fictions making art and love and reality...I just finished it and opened it the the first page to read again.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Kirsten

    With the tone of McCarthy’s 'The Road,' and the structure of Picasso’s cubist women, Yuknavitch’s Small Backs of Children (SBOC) is a work of art. Set around one event from multiple points of view, including the writer (author), Yuknavitch has given us the story of the birth of art – that of violence on the body, where all art is made. Rather than a linear plot function, scenes echo out from an act of war all too familiar. The construct is just beautiful. The notion that art is born from great With the tone of McCarthy’s 'The Road,' and the structure of Picasso’s cubist women, Yuknavitch’s Small Backs of Children (SBOC) is a work of art. Set around one event from multiple points of view, including the writer (author), Yuknavitch has given us the story of the birth of art – that of violence on the body, where all art is made. Rather than a linear plot function, scenes echo out from an act of war all too familiar. The construct is just beautiful. The notion that art is born from great suffering is not new but I’ve never seen it depicted like this. Unflinching. Female. Art in SBOC is made from the female body subjected to brutal violence. The violence of war, rape, childbirth, and death. The stuff of daily life. In the story, one act receives accolades for the artist, and so garners media attention. Wife, mother, daughter, artist, writer are redefined; art is made of their own agency, almost an answer. SBOC is filled with evocative imagery; beautiful, but like nature with its sublime aesthetic. On nearly every page, sentences stopped me dead still with their lyrical beauty. Repeatedly, I had to stop reading and hold the book to my body to sit with my thoughts. Ultimately art, born of violence too brutal to comprehend, leads to healing. I am not saying it’s a comforting read, but I don’t think it was meant to comfort. This is an important, intelligent book – it’s a force. Admittedly I am a great an of Lidia Yuknavitch’s writing. There’s no one like her alive and writing today. Her art is lasting art, and SBOC is a major contribution to statements made about our culture.

  23. 5 out of 5

    missy jean

    T/W for graphic violence and sexual violence: I actually kept thinking it was gratuitous--it might have been gratuitous--but then toward the end of the book the narrator said, "You wish I would stop speaking of all this blood, but I'm afraid it's the point. Stop wishing it wasn't. Just once, the story will keep its allegiance to the body of a single woman. Not the object of her body, but her experience of her body. With all of history deeply up and in her." And I felt caught, like I'd committed some T/W for graphic violence and sexual violence: I actually kept thinking it was gratuitous--it might have been gratuitous--but then toward the end of the book the narrator said, "You wish I would stop speaking of all this blood, but I'm afraid it's the point. Stop wishing it wasn't. Just once, the story will keep its allegiance to the body of a single woman. Not the object of her body, but her experience of her body. With all of history deeply up and in her." And I felt caught, like I'd committed some thought crime. Like how dare I think I'm in charge of deciding what is and isn't too much of one thing or another? This book is deffffinitely not for everyone, but I'll re-read pieces of it--don't judge me if I skip some of the blood next time--for the sheer gravity of the prose, the gravity and weightlessness of it. The quality of Yuknavitch's writing is like a nightmare from which you don't want to awaken.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Andrew

    This is a beautiful, well-written experimental and artistic novel. Perfect for those who invite literature to challenge them. This is not your typical boxing match—it is ruthless and chaotic –every breath of air is a small victory. Lidia’s well-crafted sentences break the mold of traditional storytelling and create a new kind of tale- something closer to the joy, fear, and honesty bottled up in the space between the heart and the sex. This is a book worth reading, buying, and reading again -- This is a beautiful, well-written experimental and artistic novel. Perfect for those who invite literature to challenge them. This is not your typical boxing match—it is ruthless and chaotic –every breath of air is a small victory. Lidia’s well-crafted sentences break the mold of traditional storytelling and create a new kind of tale- something closer to the joy, fear, and honesty bottled up in the space between the heart and the sex. This is a book worth reading, buying, and reading again -- but only if you are ready for it. I think many of the negative reviews come from the mistaken belief that the narrator (or author) is your pal who will walk by your side through the story. The “story crafter” is not your friend. That’s your first mistake. And they are not your enemy either. In The Small Backs of Children, they are brutal, intense, and for once, alive.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Barbara

    This novel starts with the survival of a young girl whose family dies in a bombing. A photographer catches the moment with her camera, a photograph that adds to her fame and wealth. The setting is never clear although Bosnia, and Russia are mentioned. A group of artists - playwright, painter, poet and photographer - are the central characters. They seems to do little but engage in drugs and sex. This is an often violent, and often disturbing novel. After reading it, I understand why the This novel starts with the survival of a young girl whose family dies in a bombing. A photographer catches the moment with her camera, a photograph that adds to her fame and wealth. The setting is never clear although Bosnia, and Russia are mentioned. A group of artists - playwright, painter, poet and photographer - are the central characters. They seems to do little but engage in drugs and sex. This is an often violent, and often disturbing novel. After reading it, I understand why the reception has been somewhat mixed.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Jessica Jeffers

    I don't even know how to rate this. I didn't particularly enjoy it, but I think it was well-written. You might like this if you're into dark novels that feel like they're written by poets (though Yuknavitch's bio doesn't mention poetry -- a fact that surprised me).

  27. 5 out of 5

    MariNaomi

    So beautifully written.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Book Riot Community

    An award-winning photo of a small girl fleeing an attack in a war-torn village becomes a subject of obsession for a writer who has suffered a tragedy of her own. As she sinks deeper and deeper into depression, her friends and family decide the only way to save her is by rescuing the girl in the photo. Another astounding book from one of today's most astounding writers. We host a weekly podcast all about new books called All The Books. You can tune in here: http://bookriot.com/category/all-the-...

  29. 4 out of 5

    Shaindel

    I had heard Lidia read at AWP before and had been a fan of her work for quite some time, but this novel is EXQUISITE. Go buy it now... If I had enough money, I would just buy a copy for each of you. I can only think of one book offhand that has made me rethink reading and writing in the same way. 5 stars times infinity.

  30. 4 out of 5

    cheryl

    First, a "warning" -- This book incredibly intense and readers should be aware that there is violence and graphic sex, often intertwined. I think these scenes are meant to disturb/disrupt but I know these scenes are simply not something every reader is comfortable with. Okay, again I'm caught in my own language a bit, few will be "comfortable" with these scenes, but it does limit the audience substantially. I'd skip this book if you have any distaste for the use of graphic depictions of sex First, a "warning" -- This book incredibly intense and readers should be aware that there is violence and graphic sex, often intertwined. I think these scenes are meant to disturb/disrupt but I know these scenes are simply not something every reader is comfortable with. Okay, again I'm caught in my own language a bit, few will be "comfortable" with these scenes, but it does limit the audience substantially. I'd skip this book if you have any distaste for the use of graphic depictions of sex (including consensual BDSM-ish sex as well as child rape) violence (sexual and non-sexual) in fiction. Moving on -- The characters in TSBOC are labeled but not named and the narrator/protagonist shifts from chapter to chapter. In many ways this is a book about characters and intangibles, but there is an underlying plot that begins with the picture of young girl running away as her home explodes with her family inside. The moment occurs in an unnamed country plagued by violence that has been largely ignored in the "first world." The photograph wins acclaim. It also has a deep impact on "the writer" who shares much of her history with the book's author herself; both are survivors of childhood sexual abuse and both have experienced the anguish of a stillborn child. As the writer falls into a suicidal depression and is hospitalized at the cusp between life and death, a group of artists gather. They decide to go get the girl in the photo and bring her to the writer. There's a lot to say. This is art, not "just" words. This is the type of book that you truly experience rather than simply read. Some chapters felt like a long exhalation and I felt compelled to read quickly, like I was speeding through breath. I could definitely see plowing through in one seating, in fact that may be the ideal way to experience TSBOC. There are an incredible number of themes including the nature of art, the construction of meaning, and the struggle to own one's own (female) body. One interesting element is the fact that the few men who play major roles in the book are largely defined by their relationship to women. They are called "the playwright", "the artist", and "the filmmaker" but they are really the brother, the ex, and the husband. A reversal of cultural norms, this is particularly interesting for those who've pondered things like the Bechdel test (and its limitations..and I do link Wikipedia often, it is far from an ideal source but sometimes gives more detail than, say, this basic Bechdel test page) that draw attention to how we define women. I'm giving this four-and-a-half stars. I'll even round up to five. This is NOT for everyone. It was a quick read but by no means an easy read. This is the polar opposite of an airplane book (both poles have merit); I'd recommend reading alone when you have energy and emotion to invest. Elements may be VERY triggering for survivors of abuse. Note: An advance copy of TSBOC was given to me by the publisher in exchange for my honest review. Harper in no way constrains the contents of this review.

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