Friday, May 23, 2014

Review: "Breath and Bones" by Susann Cokal

The nuns at the Danish convent always knew young Famke would fall into sin. Such a pretty girl would never stay on the path of righteousness, they said. She was born for rebellion--and for ruin.

Aspiring painter Albert Castle sees Famke's beauty as his means to join the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of artists. His painting of Famke as Nimue cursing Merlin is a masterpiece. But when Albert goes to make his fortune, he takes only the painting and leaves behind the naive girl whose reputation he has destroyed. 

Too fallen to be afraid of God, too sheltered to be afraid of the world, Famke sets off on her own pilgrimage. She follows Albert's wake across the ocean to the American frontier, through brothels and Mormon communes and all the wild places of a new and chaotic country. She has one shining purpose: to find her artist and be his muse again.


4.5 out of 5 stars


Dear reader, let's have one thing clear: Famke dies at the end. Or, to be precise, she is already dead by the very first scene: a surreal art gallery, filled with various paintings featuring the same red-haired woman, and at last the woman herself, dead and pickled in a jar. The rest of the book winds back the clock to lead us back to that point.

Not that Famke's death isn't guaranteed from her first (living) appearance, either. In a period book such as Susann Cokal's Breath and Bones, when a character is introduced with a perpetual hacking cough, the reader can settle back in comfortable anticipation of tuberculosis.

Breath and Bones is slow to hook readers. It's hard to engage with Famke when she is mutely, meekly serving as joint muse and bedwarmer for her painter. Her dippy swooning for a man who is obviously and callously consuming her, rather than drawing the reader's sympathy, repels them.

But once Albert abandons her, Famke begins to grow, spilling out of the mold he (and society) has created for her. Her faithless lover's unworthiness becomes irrelevant; what matters is Famke's blind, courageous devotion and the purity of her quest to find him--and Breath and Bones is, at its best moments, an epic quest, one woman's odyssey across Europe and America.

On that note: Famke herself, when Cokal allows her to be the heroine of her own story, is fantastic. She asks questions of the world, and her naive simplicity becomes her shield against conventional answers. In her kindhearted, daft way, she refuses to accept what does not make sense to her--for her mind, while poorly educated and often misinformed, is entirely logical.

Alas, much of the time she is bound into her narrative role as Our Lady Of Perpetual Objectification. Just as Famke's quest to find Albert is at its most engaging--masquerading as a man, tracking Albert through his paintings of prostitutes, painting over his work to improve it with her own, more honest eye--and the hunt is closing in, Cokal interrupts her. Instead, the author reintroduces the same heavy, condescending masculine viewpoints that Famke has been escaping. Little by little, Famke's narrative is eclipsed by the aesthetic sexual appreciation of the men that surround her. They form a skeevy boys' club of Men Who Want To Possess Famke, while turning against her for the fact that other such men exist.

It's pretty gross.

I suspect that my negative reaction is the one which Cokal intended. It's impossible to read the closing lines (as spoken by the chairman of the Naked Famke Appreciation Club) and not put down the book with a sense of rage and frustration.  All of Famke's growth, all of her slow struggle to reach her heart's desire and to express her own smothered creative impulses, her defense of the truth about women's bodies and women's minds--everything is censored and redefined by the aesthetic pretensions of other people.

Which is not an unexpected or an unfitting end to Famke's story. It only begs the question: why do such heroines have to die to make the author's point?

Fun bonus content for making the reader queasy: the quantity of unlikely metaphors used for sex (in bizarrely specific detail!) Moreover, the book boasts a hearty helping of talking points tailor-made for English majors. The symbolism of Famke cutting up and repurposing Albert's paintings? The recurring debate about the presence (or rather, absence) of body hair in Art? The essays practically write themselves. Unfortunately, they do so in the midst of an otherwise engaging story.

Despite all this grousing, I greatly enjoyed Breath and Bones. I can't get angry about a mediocre book, after all. I look forward to reading Cokal's other works in the future.

Complexity of Writing: 4/5
Quality of Writing: 5/5
Strength of Characterization: 5/5
Logic of Plot Development: 4/5
Evocation of Setting: 4/5
Effectiveness of Pacing: 4/5
Resolution of Conflict: 3/5
Emotional Engagement: 4/5
Mental Engagement: 3/5
Bechdel Test: pass
Diverse Cast: pass
Content Warning: sexual content, medical abuse, character deaths

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