Little Nothing

Written by Marisa Silver
Review by Sarah Bower

Set in an unnamed country, at an unspecified date whose trappings suggest the early 20th century, it is delightfully debatable whether Little Nothing is a historical novel at all. It defies classification and challenges genre stereotyping, and those are not the least of its charms.

As a childless couple turns in desperation to spells and potions to give them a child, so begins the life of Pavla, more a figure of fairytale than a human child, a shape shifter, a body upon which her personal struggles and the trials of her age are writ large. The one constant figure in her life is Danilo, by turns shoemaker, medical apprentice, one half of a circus act, hunter, soldier and sewage engineer yet stubbornly dedicated to Pavla, whom he loves steadfastly in all her incarnations.

The novel itself, because of its indeterminate setting and its deployment of the tropes of myth and folk tale, is as difficult to pin down as its heroine. A touching love story, an indictment of prejudice, an anti-war parable, a feminist tract, a literary road movie and a rollicking adventure. It is all these, as well as a tender exploration of parenthood and a perceptive look at the impact of the machine age on ancient societies both animal and human. Above all, this is a wise novel. Silver’s intellect and intuition are finely tuned to the nuances of character and relationships, and she writes with particular sympathy and perception about children. She also turns an unflinching and merciless eye on bigotry, vanity and war. A magical read with shades of the late, great Angela Carter.