Under the Poppy

Written by Kathe Koja
Review by Kristen Hannum

A book that’s all show and no tell, Kathe Koja’s Under the Poppy is a weird whirl of lewd theatrical romps, flashbacks to orphaned childhoods, and masterful shifting from one damaged character’s perspective to another. The book’s plot, which comes into focus with oh-so-much effort on the part of the reader, comes down to a love story: the brothel’s owner, Decca, is in love with Rupert, who loves her brother Istvan, a puppeteer. These three and the supporting cast of vividly drawn characters – most notably stout-hearted, clever Lucy, one of many whores, and kindly, Chopin-playing Jonathan, whose tongue was cut out long ago – each take their turn in the spotlight. Syncopated, sophisticated language adds to the book’s demands, as do Istvan’s puppets, as they engage in unnatural acts in the brothel.

Koja, author of literary horror and young adult novels, calls this book her version of historical fiction. Hmmm. The book may well be a sepia-toned tour de force, hand-tinted with S&M, about the ultimately comedic nature of love and reality, about the scrabble for meaning from the thin margins of a society (as Istvan says to Lucy, “We are so much alike, you and I … Both of us vendors of the art of the moment, the impermanent pleasure, the will-o’-the-wisp that lifts a man from the prison of time, and for just that moment sets him free-”), but it is hardly a historical novel, in which the historical setting is the crucial literary element. There may be laudanum and hired barouches in Under the Poppy, but its world is the brothel, not an identifiable 1800s Europe.