Title: Little Nothing
Author: Marisa Silver
Publisher: Blue Rider Press
At first thought, you can’t imagine a more ludicrous story. The story of a girl, born a midget, who is artificially stretched to a full height, but then slowly mutates into a wolf girl, before ultimately transforming into a she-wolf, and then being transformed back into a woman. Such a convoluted story couldn’t possibly make any sense. And yet it does.
Little Nothing by Marisa Silver is the story of Pavla, the word for ‘Nothing’ in the unknown language that is spoken in the unnamed country in which she is born. Born to a middle aged childless couple, as a result of the blessings of a gypsy, Pavla’s parents are shocked to know that their child is a midget.
At first they want to have nothing to do with her. But her winsome ways win them over, and they begin to love her.
However her condition, and the ill-treatment that she receives at the hands of the world, rankles them, and they visit many doctors in search of a cure. Eventually, a quack, Dr Smetanka, devises a torturous contraption that will stretch her to full height. While the ploy works, Pavla mysteriously begins to mutate into a wolf.
Dr Smetanka’s servant Danilo is the first real friend she has outside her home, but although she loves him, and he her, he cannot see past her freakiness. As the circus fortune teller tells them, One of you will be brave, one of you will be a coward. One of you will believe. One of you will doubt.
Eventually, Pavla becomes part of a freak show, attached to a circus, where she and Danilo are exploited by Dr Smetanka. When the bad doctor seeks to rape her, she attacks him in self-defence, completely transforming into a vicious wolf.
Later she joins a wolf pack, mates with the Alpha male and gives birth to four pups. When her mate and three pups are killed by a hunter, she and one pup escape, but are separated.
The writing is exquisite, inviting us into the life and world of Pavla. Over and over again, I found myself reading and re-reading a particularly beautiful turn of phrase. And there were so many of them, I'd probably end up quoting a large portion of the book. I also want to call attention to the cover. It seemed so fluid, in keeping with the shifting form of Pavla, but it also seemed to be wolf hair, seen at close quarters.
Like Pavla, Danilo too is an outcast of sorts, rejected by his parents. But by the time he realizes his love for Pavla, it is too late; she is a wolf, but Danilo proves his love by killing for her. In time, Danilo too begins to grow on us, because of his sheer love that gets him sentenced to the madhouse, where another adventure awaits him, and where he will meet another character that is crucial to the story.
Pavla grabs our hearts and minds in all her forms, whether as a midget, a freak wolf-girl, or as a wolf. We are consumed by the desire to know more about her. We are touched with sorrow at the silences she suffers through her life, a silence that will become a refrain, when a stranger falls speechless in the child’s presence, or when a villager pushes her children behind her skirts as she passes in the narrow market lanes to protect them from what might be catching.
Lines such as these make us want to know just what turn her life will take next. Pavla seems so naïve at the beginning, but she becomes strong as life repeatedly lashes out at her. She has us readers firmly in her grasp, from the moment the midwife tells her mother to picture a flower.
The set of characters are colourful, like no other I’ve seen before.
Václav and Agáta who are first disgusted by this disproportionate dollhouse version of an infant and then entranced by their child.
Boris Hormulka, who wakes Danilo up with a golden shower.
The little nameless animalistic boy, later named Markus, who triggers fatherliness in Danilo.
Dr Smetanka, cruel and utterly immoral and scarily amoral at the same time.
They all seem so real and yet so unreal at the same time. There is something both mundane and magical about life in this little village, so folksy, where the handing over of a used piece of gum becomes a privilege, and yet so universal.
The themes are indeed universal. The tendency of the world to cast out those that do not fit the mould, the desire for love, the duality of our nature that makes us abhor and be fascinated by something at the same time, and how love is often a lie. Love is filled with lies. We like you just the way you are. You are still beautiful. We will always be with you. She believes her parents do not love her less, only that before, she had a child’s notion of love that did not include the small treacheries of delusion and fear and shame.
There are a number of breaks in the narrative. We receive no information about the exact circumstances of her transformation from woman to wolf, and back again. Nor do we know what deep-seated trauma or cause leads to the transformation, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is our slow realization that love, to be love, remains unswerving, even when the object of our affection unwittingly shifts shape and form.
This story, so completely unalike anything we’ve read before, has us enthralled.
I was touched by the way the author brought the story around full circle. The story does not end with the characters getting together, but there is an element of positivity about it, so that you trust that the author will bring it to pass.
In the hands of a good writer, the most unbelievable story can come alive. That is what happens here. The world may shun Pavla for her freakishness. We do not.
When Danilo rejects her early on, we realize the loss is his, and he will live to regret it. And it is fitting that he rues his wrong decision to the very end.
To us, Pavla is a heroine, who fights her way through the circumstances that life dishes out to her, fighting hard and strong to prove herself. In each of the strange events that befall her, we stand true to her, cheering her on.
There’s no doubt that as stories go, this is the strangest of its kind, but you mustn’t let that dissuade you.
Like Pavla, you will soon realize that Nothing is indeed Everything.
(I read an ARC from First To Read.)