The characters in this story are unnamed. Instead, they are referred to by their profession - the photographer, the writer, the filmmaker, the poet, and the artist. Even the girl in the photograph is not named until partway through the story. In some moments, it reminded me of Angels In America as the characters grappled with art and the self, and the way they related to others and to the world. Does acclaim matter? Does finding success as an artist mean you have to give up the things that most make you yourself? What do we lose when we co-opt people for our artistic expression and is it ethical to do so? Can you be famous and make good art? Does giving expression to the darkness in our lives help us to battle it?
The best word to describe this book is brutal. Everything within its pages is dark and painful. This is not the story for any person who has difficulty reading about violence in any setting. Yuknavitch walks a fine line with this story between portraying the prevalence and severity of violence (especially that towards women) and creating violence for the sake of shock. Her characters can be ridiculously pretentious when it comes to their art but, then again, we get the idea of narcissistic artists from somewhere. The characters with no names almost seem representative as opposed to fully developed ones.
In some ways, the story seems to be incidental to Yuknavitch's exploration of pain and art. In fact, she provides readers with several endings without any indication which one actually occurred. The Small Backs of Children is a book for the reader who is unafraid to take risks and can face darkness and pain head on, the one who wonders if the relief of finding a common experience is a start to healing the pain, or the person who believes that art can bring solace to the grief we are faced with again and again in this life.
The Small Backs of Children
By Lidia Yuknavitch
Harper July 2015
From the library