{book} the curfew

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To begin: When the publisher claims at the end of their synopsis that Jesse Ball’s “The Curfew is a mesmerizing feat of literary imagination,” you may think it an excitable exaggeration. It isn’t. Nor is Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s observation that “There seems to be no other novelist writing today who is capable of so thoroughly disarming one’s narrative expectations.” Writers and Readers alike: prepare to be equally intimidated and inspired.

Those who have read Jesse Ball–and adore him, I would recommend you The Curfew. It has all the fluid strange mesmerism of Samedi the Deafness and The Way Through Doors (my favorite), while pushing creative boundaries: for both author and narrative. One sitting would be best for this darkling daydream.

William and Molly lead a life of small pleasures, riddles at the kitchen table, and games of string and orange peels. All around them a city rages with war. When the uprising began, William’s wife was taken, leaving him alone with their young daughter. They keep their heads down and try to remain unnoticed as police patrol the streets, enforcing a curfew and arresting citizens. But when an old friend seeks William out, claiming to know what happened to his wife, William must risk everything. He ventures out after dark, and young Molly is left to play, reconstructing his dangerous voyage, his past, and their future. An astounding portrait of fierce love within a world of random violence, The Curfewis a mesmerizing feat of literary imagination.~publisher’s comment

As you may guess from the synopsis, The Curfew is set in a dystopia. But one should not expect extensive world-building. Those familiar with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale understand atmosphere can be derived from a precision of language, of image. Ball is no more superfluous. The effect is startling, and embarrassing to the next tome in line.

Ball maintains a tight focus and casual periphery. His cast, their world, is small, often claustrophobic and other times cozy. He creates a randomness that can remain random and yet also gain greater significance as the narrative continues. In The Curfew, the violence collects into a pervasive sense of fear. By the time the father must go out after curfew, you are terrified for him. Those stories, those small everyday interactions between characters slip into a deepening pool from which the novel draws emotion. That “fierce love” left me breathless, the ending left my hands trembling.

When those ministers of “show don’t tell” jab you repeatedly with their red pen, few are recommending the level of revelation The Curfew attains.

The novel is written in the shifting between 1st and 3rd person, holding present tenses. The 3rd person narrator? Oh, but I’ve been pondering this. I believe it to be a figure such as the one discussed on pages 126-8. And if so…the implications. The Curfew is told in three Parts (or Acts). They become increasingly abstract. As the reader becomes more and more attached to the little girl and her father, the movement away from the concrete is for the better–a beautiful coping mechanism.

Ball likes to mind the visual impact with dash (–) introductions to dialog, unexpectedly fluid segues, font shifts. Riddles* make their return, though with a more overt role. His repetition of images, the novels preoccupations (seats, strings, epigraphs, lies, “ideas,” etc). The use of puppetry takes on a more surprising presence than I’d anticipated; not that I figured it would remain as obvious as “people as puppets,” but the use of the puppeteer’s narrative structure (105-6), compounded by Ball’s, is marvelous.

The Curfew is a puzzle. On a primary level, the reader understands what is going on. By that ending–on another level–you are not entirely certain. This should not repel you. The response could very well be my own as I may be denying what I am being told. However, I do believe there are cues to suggest a second or third look, none of which I am going to share before your first reading. The result is an expansion of narrative possibility. The Curfew is a complex work that can be read very simply. But why you would leave it there, I’m not entirely sure.

Ball has an elegant hand with the bizarre; which may not resonate with the greater audience. The father was a world-renowned violinist. His new job is for a Mason, consulting with people and writing epigraphs for headstones. The daughter is mute and clever and irrepressible. The mother is perceived differently by the father and the daughter, but haunts both. You learn of them through external interactions, dialog, encounters. They are exactly as they seem in an environment where little is certain. Aren’t they?

There is an old-world feel despite the sense that the setting could occur anywhere, anytime. There is a surreality in even the most mundane, in the quiet and sorrowful moments that enthrall the reader. And ultimately, there is an aching familiarity; this is where empathy and fear take hold and linger long after the book closes. What does happen to the father? What happens to the little girl?

There is an ending. But I guarantee it will have you working your way back through to the beginning, after a recovery period. And you won’t hate Jesse Ball for doing that to you, submerging you back into the book. At least, you mightn’t.

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recommendation: I understand that I really respond to Jesse Ball’s writing on a level that challenges articulation, especially with only one reading of the text. While The Curfew takes notable departures from previous novels, I would recommend you start with either Samedi the Deafness (a suspense thriller) and/or The Way Through Doors (a love story) and enter them with an open mind, patient, clear of expectation; this way you can get the style of his writing (voice/form). my reviews for: The Way Through Doors and Samedi the Deafness

For fans of Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges. For those who like Poetry, Riddles, Literature, the Absurd. Not to be read in proximity to lengthy dystopian fantasies (for both their sakes).

of note: I was reminded of the film Children of Men (2006), as well as the book The Beauty & The Sorrow by Peter Englund in that explanations for the current State are intimate and limited to a character’s understanding of the events/context and their pertinence.

There are conversations The Curfew broaches regarding Art, the Individual, Oppression, Ideas, etc. that I didn’t even touch, partially to keep the “review” relatively spoiler-free. I would love to talk about any of them.

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*I am bad with riddles, but I wasn’t put off. However, I would like to read this with someone who is good at them.

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The Curfew by Jesse Ball : vintage contemporaries, 2011. 195 pages, tradepaper.

{images: 1) a promo sticker Jesse Ball created for book’s release via Vintage Books/Anchor Books tumblr. 2) cover. }

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Suey says:

    And once again you are showing me that there are so so many books and/or authors out there that I’ve never heard of and that my list of things that should/must/can/ be read is truly never ending….

  2. I’ve never heard of Jesse Ball, but this sounds like something I would like. And I really like that top image (the promo sticker) a lot. It’s bizarre and startling and brings Hiroshima to mind for some reason. Thanks for bringing this guy to mind.

  3. Gisel says:

    The curfew is my first reading of Jesse Ball… To be fair with it, maybe it was me who did not fully understand it, or did not get the ending right, for it gave such a bitter flavor. Is there any discussion forum where this book has been reviewed? Because I don´t want to write spoilers here. Thanks!

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