The Tiny Wife by Andrew Kaufman: A Review

The Tiny Wife, by Andrew Kaufman. Friday Project, 2011, UK. No Canadian rights.

Not long ago, Jennifer Campbell interviewed Andrew Kaufman, also author of All My Friends Are Superheroes and The Waterproof Bible. Later, Emily Keeler wrote a review of Kaufman’s The Tiny Wife, as did Ngaire BookieMonster. And now, on the Advent Book Blog, you can see Monique Sherrett‘s recommendation of the short, small novel, too. I’ve wanted to read The Tiny Wife for a while, but right now you can’t get it here in Canada; at least, I’m quite sure there aren’t Canadian rights for it. Even though Kaufman’s Canadian. This is a bit weird to me, but I’m not rights savvy yet, so I don’t know how these things work.

Seeing my desire to read it expressed on Twitter, @FridayProject, an experimental imprint of HarperCollinsUK, very generously hooked me up with the gorgeous, beautifully designed and bound hardcover. The paper is soft, almost but not quite like newsprint, and it’s fittingly a tiny book in stature, and about a mere 88 pages, decorated with enchanting silhouette illustrations by Tom Percival that perfectly capture the story’s tone. It’s evident that all those working on the book had a clear idea of Kaufman’s story and the mood it is supposed to evoke.

Perhaps it seems silly to review something you can’t readily get, but the idea here is for me not only to review but also recommend something I very much enjoyed and, as always, support the author.

The Tiny Wife is the best in magic realism (one of my very favourite things in literature), a whimsical, fantastical tale set in modern-day Toronto. The story begins in a bank on the corner of Christie and Dupont. A flamboyantly dressed man wielding a gun and speaking with a thick British accent demands all those present hand over not money (“it was never about the money”) but the item on their person of the most sentimental value. A photo, a watch, a calculator…miscellaneous items are handed over, and the mysterious thief escapes. It is shortly after he leaves that the victims begin to notice strange things happening to them. A woman’s lion tattoo leaps off her leg and proceeds to chase her about the city. A baby fills his diapers with money instead of excrement. A woman wakes to find her husband has turned into a snowman. A man discovers his mother has become small enough to fit in his pocket, but worse, she exponentially multiplies, so that there are tens of her. And the narrator’s wife, Stacey, mother of their toddler, is shrinking at a rate she calculates will mean her disappearance in a matter of days.

Heartbreaking, tender, horrifying, beautiful, and wondrous, The Tiny Wife is written with engaging yet perfectly edited prose. Everything is necessary; everything is just right, so well crafted, that it is impossible to say the story should be any longer than it is. The narrator’s voice is observant but not detached, a little impossibly omniscient but to great effect, and also painfully honest. His is also the voice of a husband: this is not solely the account of the strange happenings associated with the mysterious thief but also the story of a struggling marriage.

“A modern fable,” the back of the book states, and it’s this in particular that got me thinking as I read. It is perhaps easy to read past the fable and be solely entertained by such an enchanting tale, but this book is not all charm. The clue is in the thief. Why does he ask for the most sentimental item instead of money? Why does he orchestrate all the strange occurrences, both terrible and wonderful? Why does what happens to each victim happen? How are these occurrences related to the items they’d handed over? And what does the thief mean when he tells the people in the bank:

Ladies and gentlemen, your attention please … when I leave here, I will be taking 51 percent of your souls with me. This will have strange and bizarre consequences in your lives. But more importantly, and I mean this quite literally, learn how to grow them back, or you will die.

The Tiny Wife is the story of a robbery of sorts. It is the story of a struggling marriage that finds hope. It is the story of how adversity and challenge can be to our benefit. And it is the story of how some people failed to learn how to grow back their souls, but also about those who finally understood how to rejuvenate them.

Watch the Tiny Wife book trailer!


Nikolski by Nicolas Dickner: A review

I love stories in which various unlikely characters are tied together in some way and often, as the reader hopes, come together, even if only briefly. The ways in which human beings find themselves somehow connected is fascinating to me. Often, too, these stories are told from the perspective of each main character; I’ve always enjoyed this. I can think of several books presented in this way, from Carol Shields‘s brilliant Happenstance to Julian Barnes’s humourous Talking It Over.

As for the unlikely characters and the strings of objects and/or events linking them together, look at Nick Hornby‘s A Long Way Down, in which four people find themselves surprisingly met in a strange location—the rooftop of Topper’s House in London—where each had previously decided, before they saw the other, to privately commit suicide.  More recent is A School of Essential Ingredients, by Erica Bauermeister, in which eight strangers gather together for a cooking class and become transformed and connected through the art of creating and preparing food.

Nikolski by Nicolas Dickner, the 2008 Governor General’s Award winner for translation, is one of these books in which strings of events, objects (a compass that points only to Nikolski, a Frankenstein of a book with no face, fish, books, and the sea), and themes (namely, archeology and history and pirates), as well as one man, Jonas Doucet, link 3 young people.

Told from the perspective of each, the story unfolds in a surprisingly original way, with humourous yet touching prose as Noah, Joyce, and an unnamed bookseller come from distant places in search of meaning and purpose, but either end up meeting or coming so close as to pass like ships in the night. Added elements of magic realism, which I especially enjoyed, make the story all the more compelling and wondrous. Dickner even acknowledges the unlikely by blatently labelling it so, which adds to the humour (you can tell he was having writerly fun): an apology of sorts without apologizing. The description of the Book with No Face was so excellent I read it aloud to my husband:

The book had followed an unimaginable trajectory. After several decades on the shelves of the library of the University of Liverpool, it had been stolen by a student, been passed from hand to hand, escaped two fires, and then, left to its own devices, returned to the wild. It had crossed thousands of kilometres in various bags, travelled amid the cargo in damp crates, been thrown overboard but continued on its way in the acidic belly of a whale, before being spat out and retrieved by an illiterate deep-sea diver. Jonas Doucet finally won it in a poker game in a Tel Aviv bar one intemperate night.

Its pages were brittle, spotted with countless small rust-coloured specks, and if you buried your nose in it you could detect vegetation patiently endeavouring to colonize the depths of the paper. Not only was this Noah’s one book, but it was also one of a kind, bearing a host of distinctive signs. In the middle of page 58, for instance, there was a large, brownish bloodstain. Between pages 42 and 43, a fossilized mosquito had made its home, a tiny stowaway flattened by surprise. And scribbled in the margin of page 23 was the mysterious word Rokovoko. (Vintage 2009, 28)

Much like the Book with No Face, the story itself is artfully pieced together, layered and complex, weaving in and out of time and space and perspective. We truly get a sense of loss and questing, of disorganization and looseness, of being adrift in the great world without much in the way of guidance. So much of me wanted to see these three people come into their own, find a sense of peace and belonging.

While reading this book I couldn’t help but keep thinking of Nino Ricci’s Origin of Species: I think it was the sense of learning, of myriad facts, of the ever-looming character of water, that caused this. That story, too, though, is richly layered and somewhat similar in theme; perhaps a study of the two would be an interesting paper! (Alas, those days for me are long past.)

I also have a soft spot for translated literature, and this book, masterfully translated from the French by Lazar Lederhendler, blew me away with its beautifully rendered prose. The words seemed so carefully chosen, the text so seamless and smooth, without a trace of awkwardness, that it was though it had been originally written in English. I regret not having kept up with my French enough to be able to read the original work. But I do not feel I’ve  missed out in any way. This is one book I’d recommend to anyone.

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