Sophia was made for him. Her perfect husband. She can feel it in her bones. He is perfect. Their home together in Arcadia Gardens is perfect. Everything is perfect.
It’s just that he’s away so much. So often. He works so hard. She misses him. And he misses her. He says he does, so it must be true. He is the perfect husband and everything is perfect.
But sometimes Sophia wonders about things. Strange things. Dark things. The look on her husband’s face when he comes back from a long business trip. The questions he will not answer. The locked basement she is never allowed to enter. And whenever she asks the neighbors, they can’t quite meet her gaze….
But everything is perfect. Isn’t it?
This is a book that you can judge by its cover. The writing is as gorgeous and the story is as disturbing as the artwork.
This novella from Catherynne M. Valente has a narcotic fairytale feel to it, a toxic sweetness with rot at its core, that reminds me of Angela Carter’s short stories.
The writing that describes Sophia’s actions is rich and ripe, flooding the senses in a dizzying way that sweeps the reader along in a series of images that engage but which are difficult at first to make into a pattern. This reflects Sophia’s growing understanding that there are things that she’s not seeing or things that she’s seeing but not understanding and finally, that there are things everyone else sees clearly that she cannot focus on and that these things make them pity her and fear for her.
These chapters are full of strong images that I found myself highlighting but one of my favourites is Sophia’s response when she is asked if she is happy.
“She doesn’t understand. She has never considered it. It is possible to be so entirely happy you never ask the question. She is a full glass submerged in water. Neither nor both full and empty. The inquiry, though kind, has no meaning for her.”
Sophia’s chapters are punctuated by extracts from the rules governing the gated community she lives in. At first, they seem the typical dry legalese you find in any lease but, as the chapters go by, they sound darker, more authoritarian, closer to the regulations of a prison camp than of a residential community.
I won’t reveal the plot here as part of the fun is in understanding what is going on only a little before Sophia does.
I will say that this is a book that has teeth. It is gloriously spooky and deeply subversive. As the story unfolds opulence becomes menace, knowledge becomes dangerous and ignorance becomes impossible to sustain.
At its heart, this is a book about knowledge and its consequences. What is known cannot be unknown. What is known can be passed on. What is known can define the difference between right and wrong,
I recommend this book to you if you’re in the mood for something different and compelling. Give yourself up to it. Let the story carry you to its conclusions. It may make you reconsider what you know and what you need to do about it.