Sunday, May 8, 2011

Review: Kafka's House by Gabriela Popa

Rating: 3.3 out of 5

I find it wonderful to read about a slice of life that is separate from my own, a sliver of reality alien to me in setting and social construction yet human enough to allow me to feel for the characters and wonder what it would be like if I, myself, lived under these circumstances.

In Kafka’s House, Gabriela Popa transports the reader to Romania in the 1960’s, a land where old ways are beginning to be ushered away at the onset of communism. In this tale we meet Sylvia, a precocious 10-year-old with a wandering mind, love of stories, and the unquenchable urge for knowledge apart from the everyday life she’s always known.

The story is simple. Sylvia lives in a small town with her parents and younger sister, Mirela. She spends her time (both in school and out) with her best friend Duck and avoiding a young boy named Florin who she dubs “the enemy”, the perpetrator of much of her youthful angst. She is constantly sent to pick up bors from a pair of older ladies down the street, Ana and Crina. Ana in particular captures Sylvia’s attention, as she is a woman of travel. Ana tells the girl stories of Prague and lets Sylvia see postcards from other countries, as well as occasionally smuggling snippets of wonderment (in the form of pages from a diary) into her bags. Sylvia laps this all up and her thirst for adventure is only heightened.

The most brilliant aspect of the plot is that while her thirst is heightened, Sylvia is inexorably trapped by her everyday life. Her parents are overprotective and the simple truths of her country’s conversion to a communist state and the ever-present threats from neighboring countries don’t exactly make it safe or practical for this child to explore her inner voyager. So she spends much of the book trapped in her own mind, questioning the reasoning for what happens around her and using fairy tales to try and come to grips with what she doesn’t understand.

Author Popa creates a Romania that is wonderfully unfamiliar and yet atmospheric. We the readers are transported to this land and by the end we come to at least a modicum of understanding of what life in this time, in this place, might have been like. She uses a delightfully innocent voice that gives the book the feel of being an autobiographical memoir rather than fictional tale, which this reviewer will go ahead and assume is done on purpose. With the intimacy with which Popa describes these people and their surroundings, this reviewer will go ahead and assume this is a story based directly on the author’s life.

But this voice is also part of the problem with the book. Whereas the story is told through Sylvia’s eyes and in the present tense, there are contemplations and language used that effectively pulled me out of the story every so often, for there is no way a sheltered girl of ten could be possessed of such worldliness. I wish the book had been written in past tense and constructed more in the way of a reflective memoir, because each time I was yanked from the wonderful atmosphere it canceled out what the writing is trying to accomplish.

The format and language used in the book was also a problem for me. Commas are abundant and often misused, words are constantly mashed together, grammar is spotty, and there are sporadic indents and spacing. Also, the author doesn’t use quotes around dialogue, instead relying on an em-dash to connote someone speaking. Taken on its own this is a writing convention I don’t necessarily mind (Cormac McCarthy doesn’t use quotes either, and he’s one of the greatest American writers of this century), but when placed atop the other issues it becomes noticeable, distracting, and confusing. It gives the book a sometimes amateurish feel, and also makes one think that perhaps English is not the author’s native language, which might well be true.

However, with all this being said and despite my rating, I can honestly say that I would recommend this book. It’s a slice of youth and innocence that serves to inform us that no matter how different two cultures might be, in the end we’re all human. We live, we learn, we encounter disappointment, pain, and fear, and yet still we may be able to rise above, even if it’s through nothing but our imagination. You will wonder at the idiosyncrasies that people possess and ponder just how much of the unknown is unknown for a reason, for when faced with dire circumstances and a society living on the edge of fear, morality is sometimes hard to judge. I think that morality play, and the loss your individual voice, may be the main points of the story, and for that alone I can say that I truly enjoyed the time I spent reading this.

Plot - 7

Characters - 9

Voice - 7

Execution - 3

Personal Enjoyment – 7

Overall – 33/50 (3.3/5)

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