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“Little Nothing”: Shapeshifting and Transformation

– Posted in: Fantasy Book Reviews

Let’s Subvert the Brothers Grimm

To be honest, it took me a long time to write this review because Little Nothing is a complex and layered story that requires reflection. My primary problem is how to talk about specifics in the book without spoilers. I’ve tried to accomplished that here.

Marisa Silver’s Little Nothing is alluring and macabre. The Grimm Brothers would be pleased. The story subverts traditional and modern fairy tales. Just when you think you have a handle on the story, it takes unpredictable twists and turns.

At its heart, this is a tale of Pavla and Danilo’s unrequited love and their personal transformative journeys. When they have their palms read and are told, “One of you will be brave and one of you will be a coward” the ideas stuck with me for the rest of the novel. I found myself looking for a fulfillment of these words.

Brief Summary

“In an unnamed country at the beginning of the last century, a child called Pavla is born to peasant parents. Her arrival, fervently anticipated and conceived in part by gypsy tonics and archaic prescriptions, stuns her parents and brings outrage and scorn from her community. Pavla has been born a dwarf, beautiful in face, but as the years pass, she grows no farther than the edge of her crib. When her parents turn to the treatments of a local charlatan, his terrifying cure opens the floodgates of persecution for Pavla. Little Nothing unfolds across a lifetime of unimaginable, magical transformation in and out of human form, as an outcast girl becomes a hunted woman whose ultimate survival depends on the most startling transfiguration of them all. Woven throughout is the journey of Danilo, the young man entranced by Pavla, obsessed only with protecting her. Part allegory about the shifting nature of being, part subversive fairy tale of love in all its uncanny guises, Little Nothing spans the beginning of a new century, the disintegration of ancient superstitions, and the adoption of industry and invention. With a cast of remarkable characters, a wholly original story, and extraordinary, page-turning prose, Marisa Silver delivers a novel of sheer electricity.” From Amazon.com

What I liked

1) The writing is lovely and vivid.

2) I savored the the complexity and ambiguous nature of the open-ended conclusion.

3) I found the exploration of personal transformation in extreme adversity both intense and interesting. Pavla’s shapeshifting allows her to transcend the horrors of her life, and she finds power when all power has been taken from her. As I read, one reoccurring idea kept popping into my mind: everything Pavla and Danilo suffer could have been avoided if only. At every turn their choices and other people’s choices shaped their lives. For me, this idea creates a powerful tale of individuals caught up in what could have been avoidable tragedy.

4) The love story is not a typical Hollywood tale. Danilo and Pavla love each other, but each is too broken to tell the other. They have suffered at the hands of their families and society. Pavla cannot imagine Danilo could love her, and yet he does. He loves and protects her in all her forms. Perhaps the biggest tragedy it that they don’t feel worthy of the other’s love.

What I Wasn’t Crazy About

1) Fairy tales have an internal logic that makes sense in the world of the tale. There were times, especially Pavla’s first transformation, when the shapeshifting was unbelievable and lacked an internal consistency.

2) Occasionally, the story shifted radically without explanation, and in those times, I felt lost until I pieced together who was where and what was happening. Because the story was primarily told by an all-knowing narrator, it would have been simple to have some clear transitions and explanations. Silver may have used this strategy so the reader would experience the characters’ confusion, but for me, this didn’t fit the storytelling format she uses.

3) Most of the story is relentlessly bleak and heartbreaking. There were times when I wished for a moment of respite and hope.

Last Thoughts

Although I enjoyed and liked this book, it’s not for everyone. Little Nothing is often in your face with the grisly aspects of Pavla and Danilo’s lives. If you prefer the Brothers Grimm to Disney, if you love gritty, ambiguous tales, if you jump for joy at open-ended stories, you’ll savor Little Nothing.

The Usual Reminders

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