June 9, 2011
The Odious Child by Carolyn Black
I’m very happy that Carolyn Black has agreed to be next up at Author Interviews @ Pickle Me This. First, because it’s been awhile, this mostly because it’s been awhile since I’ve read a book that’s made me curious enough to go search the author out for some illumination. Second, because her book The Odious Child has left me so curious, most of all to discover who Carolyn Black’s influences are. I can’t figure them out. (Although she is thoroughly umPymmish, however, her characters do work in Pym-like occupations I find infinitely fascinating– indexers, librarians, museum cataloguers. Yum). She writes like no one else I’ve ever read, like a writer who’s standing on the shoulders of nobody, her stories’ own foundations are so very solid. There is a fantastical element to the stories, but nothing whimsical. You might call some of the stories’ structures “experimental”, but it’s not the right word because it suggests the author didn’t know her outcomes beforehand and Carolyn Black’s “experiments” are so incredibly, impeccably controlled.
The story that kept me up in the night thinking about it, and wouldn’t get out of my head the following day, was “Baby Mouth”, which is the very best illustration of maternal ambivalence I have ever read. Lionel Shriver also did it well, but she forgot to put the love there, and Carolyn Black doesn’t, with a story that so much echoed my own experience that the similarities made me shiver with every page I turned. About a mother who’s not perfectly suited to the new baby in her care, and how those dark early days come back to her almost a year old when her baby still hasn’t smiled. Wondering, but unable to confess, if a violent moment of abandon could have led to her baby’s problem… (Here is my obligatory clarification: we had no violent abandon at our house, except for the time I punched the wall [but not through it! There is restraint, albeit the wall's, and not mine, but alas...])
The story is funny, as Black satirizes the absurd industry of modern parenting, but it’s also sad as the mother’s desperation mounts, and the love is tender, and Black’s empathy with her character is remarkable, which is the case through the whole book, even in the stories that are completely out there. And it’s where the solidity comes from, I think, from a writer who is so completely invested in her people and their points of view. Which, you’d think, would go without saying, but I’ve read a lot of books where this is not the case. Particularly not when the author’s people include, for example, a disembodied head…
Anyway, though Carolyn Black’s first book is one of the strongest debuts I’ve ever encountered, I’m not sure this is a book for the short story novice: it demands close attention and several leaps of faith, and these readers might not be ready for it yet. But for those who are already admirers of the form, The Odious Child will prove remarkably rewarding.