I received this book for free from the Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.The Motion of Puppets by Keith Donohue
Published by Picador on October 4 2016
Genres: Adult, Fantasy
Format: Finished hardcover
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The nitty-gritty: An odd and magical story based on the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice, set in modern times.
This is my second Keith Donohue book, and I loved it just as much as The Boy Who Drew Monsters. I have to admit when I first read the blurb for The Motion of Puppets, I was thrown by the strange and nonsensical idea of a woman who turns into a puppet. But once I started reading, Donohue’s lovely prose and careful plotting hooked me line and sinker, and I could barely stop reading. The pacing may be on the slow side for readers who enjoy more fast-paced stories, but Donohue is a master at slowly building suspense, and the feeling of helplessness and dread increases with each turn of the page.
The story takes place in Québec City, where newlyweds Theo and Kay have recently come to live, after Kay gets a job performing as an acrobat in the cirque. While Kay spends her nights at the theatre, Theo works at home as a translator. On their nightly walks through the streets of their new home, Kay is drawn to an abandoned toy shop called the Quatre Mains, where an old wooden puppet in the window of the shop has caught her imagination.
One night after the show, Kay is invited to go out with her fellow actors, but afterwards, trying to spurn the unwanted attentions of one of the cast members, Kay decides to walk home by herself. When she hears footsteps behind her, she is sure the man she’s trying to escape has followed her, and she spots a storefront with a light on and runs toward it. Strangely, that store is the Quatre Mains, and miraculously, the door is unlocked. Kay takes shelter inside, but there is something much more dangerous than a sexual predator waiting inside for her.
When Kay doesn’t come home, Theo begins to worry, and when he still isn’t able to get in touch with her the next morning, he goes to the police for help. But Kay has simply vanished, and as the days pass, her trail grows colder and colder. Theo enlists the help of one of Kay’s fellow performers, a dwarf named Egon, and together they search the city for clues. But where do you start looking when not a trace remains of the woman you love?
Donohue immerses the reader in a dreamlike world full of cobblestone streets, dusty store front windows and magical puppets that can move and speak on their own. He’s created an odd juxtaposition of old and new. The story has a very old-fashioned feel to it, and when I first started reading I thought it might be set in the past, at least fifty or sixty years. Little things, like the yellow dress Kay is wearing when she disappears, to the musty feel of the abandoned toy store, to the inept investigation of the Québec police all added to the ambiance of a story set in the 1950s or 60s. But Theo has a smart phone, so we know these events take place in the present.
The story’s point of view goes back and forth between Theo, who is desperately searching for his wife, and Kay, who has magically become trapped in the form of a puppet. It’s no secret what’s happened to Kay, as the reader gets to experience her frightening transformation after only a couple of chapters, after she breaks into the empty Quatre Mains store and wakes up lying on a table in the Back Room, the place where the puppets who aren’t currently being used in a puppet show are stashed. What the reader doesn’t know is exactly how this transformation happens. When Kay realizes she’s been turned into a puppet, and she begins to make friends with the other puppets—who have also been magically transformed into speaking, moving beings—she eventually meets the “giants,” the owners of the store who are the gods of this strange world, deciding which puppets will perform and which should be repurposed. I guess there’s nothing more horrifying to a puppet than the moment you spot a bin full of doll and puppet parts—heads, eyes, legs, hands—and realize that your fate is up in the air. As strange as Kay’s chapters were, I loved the constant feeling of unease as the puppets wake each midnight, never knowing which of them might be missing.
As Kay becomes more accustomed to her new life as a puppet, Theo is in agony, wondering what happened to his new wife. When she doesn’t come home after a raucous night out with her friends, Theo goes to the theatre to question the performers. A kind dwarf named Egon joins forces with Theo and together they start their own investigation into Kay’s disappearance, after the local police can’t find anything. I loved the growing friendship between the two, as Egon is the only person who believes that something dreadful has happened to Kay. Kay’s mother Delores also plays a small part in the story. Theo is convinced that Delores doesn’t like him, since he’s ten years older than Kay, but the longer Kay goes missing, Delores realizes that she needs Theo just as much as he needs her.
And the puppets! I loved the chapters with Kay and her new friends, as she slowly realizes that she is no longer human. Now that Kay’s head is stuffed with straw, the memories of her old life are fading away, although she does remember random events at times. Most of the puppets, including Kay, are resigned to their fate as toys, only able to move about on their own at night. But there is one puppet, a small girl named Noë, who yearns for her human life and tries to escape the Back Room again and again. I rooted for Noë, even though I knew her attempts to leave would only lead to heartbreak.
If you are familiar with the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, then you can probably guess where things are headed. Donohue’s ending was bittersweet and a bit shocking, but I really do love when a story doesn’t end the way I expect it to. Theo and Kay are apart for most of the book, but they are still connected by their memories of each other, as if attached by a rubber band that is slowly and inexorably drawing them back together. I loved every word of this strange and magical tale, and I can’t wait for Keith Donohue’s next book.
Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy.