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Little Nothing
     

Little Nothing

4.0 1
by Marisa Silver
 

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A Huffington Post Book Club Suggestion • An O: The Oprah Magazine Fall Pick • A LitHub Book You Should Read This September • One of The Millions' "Most Anticipated" for 2016

“Marisa Silver’s beguiling new novel Little Nothing is a powerful exploration of the relationship between our

Overview

A Huffington Post Book Club Suggestion • An O: The Oprah Magazine Fall Pick • A LitHub Book You Should Read This September • One of The Millions' "Most Anticipated" for 2016

“Marisa Silver’s beguiling new novel Little Nothing is a powerful exploration of the relationship between our changeable bodies and our just as malleable identities…Silver’s storytelling skills are finely matched to her themes…meditative passages bloom with life.”
—Matt Bell, The New York Times Book Review
 
A stunning, provocative new novel from New York Times bestselling author Marisa Silver, Little Nothing is the story of a girl, scorned for her physical deformity, whose passion and salvation lie in her otherworldly ability to transform herself and the world around her.

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.

Editorial Reviews

The Barnes & Noble Review

Marisa Silver's fourth novel, Little Nothing, is a marvelous book. I mean "marvelous" in the this-critic-approves sense, sure: Her command of character, style, and storytelling is expert and sustained. But I also mean it in the sense of being full of marvels: Its story is suffused with magic, lycanthropy, circuses, and cliffhanger incidents of good luck and bad. We're already awash in stories like this, especially at the multiplex, where we're dazzled to be distracted. Silver, however, grasps that the best stories dazzle us to guide us to a deeper sense of being. "Sometimes this life is hard to believe," muses one character, and Silver's most impressive accomplishment is that her hard-to-believe incidents feel as stark and clear as thunderbolts.

To put this more simply: It's a fairy tale. Its hero, Pavla, is a girl born in a rural town in an imaginary Balkans-ish place — the midwife who delivers her speaks Slovak, though all we know for certain is that the homeland is "routinely tossed back and forth between sovereign empires as a consolation prize for greater losses." She is born a dwarf, much to her parents' despair, and their despair means her childhood is stockpiled with cruelties, not least the doctor who recommends she be half-buried in the ground and exposed to hot oil treatments that theoretically would, "in combination with the moist earth, cause her skin to become elastic."

Between the burns she suffers from that foolishness and the useless and brutal rack she is placed upon by her doctor — real-world medical quackery, both mental and physical, is the dark magic in this tale — Pavla has little choice but to use her damage and difference to her advantage, joining a circus to support her family. There, she has transformed from a small but pretty girl to a tall young woman but with wolfish features. From Jeckyll and Hyde to Twilight, werewolves have been symbols of humanity's high and low, cultivation and ferality. Silver offers a more provocative spin: As Wolf Girl, Pavla is all low, "the synthesis of two things men have a need to routinely destroy: animals and women." And when the circus keeper attempts to assault her, Pavla fights back by becoming fully wolfish.

That scene, like much of the novel, is constructed out of viscera and damage. War, explosions, gunfire, imprisonment, and abuse are all part of Little Nothing's milieu — Pavla is in a hunter's sights more than once. But Silver's grim backgrounding — the stuff of contemporary serious novels — is braided with and softened by the once-upon-a-time tone Silver uses to depict it. Terrible things happen, but her avuncular style ("When most people hear of a dwarf, they imagine court jesters or circus clowns . . . ") suggests that these terrible things are in service of a fable of transformation that accommodates uplift alongside its tragic turns.

Such a tone can risk making Pavla's plights seem absurd, or minor — rubbery G-rated characters are forever getting out of scrapes at the multiplex, with kindly narrators holding kids' hands through them. But Silver fully inhabits the fairy tale's mission to speak to "the need to be loved and the fear that one is thought worthless, the love of life, and the fear of death," as Bruno Bettelheim wrote in his landmark 1976 book, The Uses of Enchantment. Anybody who knows the Grimm Brothers' original tales, where Little Red Riding Hood is devoured and Cinderella's stepsisters mutilate their feet to fit in that glass slipper, knows that "grown-up fairy tale" can be a redundancy. That's the spirit of Little Nothing; the upside of Pavla's journey is less about the childhood fantasy of triumphantly conquering enemies than the grown-up work of conquering her internal fears.

She's not alone in her labors. Following Pavla is Danilo, the doctor's assistant who once strapped her to that miserable table but then fell in love with her. Though he remains stubbornly human, he's awash in symbolism, too — he is the hunter, the outcast, the man who is missing his twin brother, a good man wrongly accused of madness. As Silver pairs his story with Pavla's, she suggests that her physical transformation and his mental and social difference are two sides of the same coin. What Pavla feels internally is what Danilo receives externally from the war, and from his awareness that there is more to the world than his simple upbringing: "It is possible to become new."

Fairy tales essentialize the world, package them into straightforward conflicts that, as Bettelheim suggested, make our emotional seas navigable to us. But they can also crack open the everyday, infuse it with a host of mysteries of shape-shifting and magic and change and unfairness. In Pavla and Danilo, Silver invents a pair who encompass that narrowness and widening, merging the realist-novel assertion that we are functions of our circumstances and the magical-marvelous assertion that we become more when we look beyond those circumstances. "The obvious question is the wrong question," Danilo thinks at one point. "And that to interpret the world by way of its most available and reasonable clues will only lead him further down the narrow path that has, thus far, defined his existence." Little Nothing is steeped in strangeness, but it's driven by a basic question that frees the best novels and their heroes when the time comes to explore their worlds: What if there's something else out there?

Mark Athitakis is a writer, editor, critic, and blogger who’s spent more than a dozen years in journalism. His work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Washington Post Book World, Chicago Sun-Times, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Washington City Paper, and many other publications. He is currently a member of the Board of Directors of the National Book Critics Circle.

Reviewer: Mark Athitakis

The New York Times Book Review - Matt Bell
…beguiling…a powerful exploration of the relationship between our changeable bodies and our just as malleable identities…it draws as much from fairy tales as history, obviously inspired by the Brothers Grimm and perhaps Hans Christian Andersen, whose Thumbelina and The Little Mermaid likewise feature the dramatic transformations of their heroines. But more than physical being, Little Nothing also traces how memories and the stories we tell shape who we are and what we are capable of becoming…Silver's storytelling tactics are finely matched to her themes, with her book's structure frequently mimicking the dreamlike movements of memories and fables. Much of the plot of Little Nothing is driven by what Kate Bernheimer calls the "intuitive logic" of the fairy tale, further powered by what Charles Baxter once named "rhyming actions"—events and circumstances and details that recur throughout, setting up haunting echoes…These instances create meaningful resonances even over hundreds of intervening pages, allowing Silver's intellectual and emotional themes to accumulate with enviable subtlety.
Publishers Weekly
07/25/2016
Silver’s (Mary Coin) latest novel reads like a fairy tale, following two characters in a time and place that may be a century ago, and may be Europe. Pavla is born a dwarf with a lovely face. Danilo is a tinkerer indentured to a charlatan, Dr. Smetanka, in order to repay a family debt. Pavla’s aging parents bundle her onto a wagon and into the evil arms of Smetanka, seeking a cure. Smetanka orders the handy Danilo to build a moving table that becomes an instrument of torture, transforming Pavla into the first of her several incarnations. Smetanka forces Pavla on stage with Danilo as part of his freak show, though their pantomime is also a love story of sorts. Each actor loves the other, but neither has the self-confidence to declare it off stage. One tragedy after another separates the star-crossed lovers in a strange series of incidents and reincarnations. Pavla serves to remind readers of the moral of the story, that a good soul can find transcendence in the face of unbearable odds. And in Danilo readers will recognize their own longing for transcendence and meaning as he transforms himself through pain and sorrow into a man of courage and ingenuity. Agent: Henry Dunow, Dunow, Carlson & Lerner. (Sept.)
Library Journal
10/01/2016
Farrier-turned-plumber Vaclav Janacek and wife Agáta are loving parents to Pavla, their only child, in an indeterminate Slavic village sometime near the beginning of the 20th century. Pavla is a dwarf, nicknamed "Little Nothing," and beloved for her ethereal beauty and good nature. Worrying about her fate after their passing, the elderly Janaceks decide to "fix" her, employing dubious folk and pseudo-medical "remedies." Thus begins the first in a series of startling transformations as Pavla begins evolving in a decidedly lupine direction, traveling with a circus sideshow and even joining a wolf pack. Here the tale becomes as much that of Danilo, the teenage "doctor's assistant" who first meets Pavla in the midst of a brutal "stretching" attempt and falls in love with her. Their paths diverge and cross as war and terror envelop the land, leaving Danilo to wonder if Pavla—in any form—was ever real at all. This is a tale of transformation, but does the mix of fairy tale and stark reality best serve the theme and these characters? VERDICT Best-selling and award-winning author Silver (Mary Coin; The God of War) has created a haunting tale of magic realism, both fabulist and earthy. Readers will need to decide if the transition from Pavla's story to Danilo's is entirely satisfying. [See Prepub Alert, 5/21/16.]—Jennifer B. Stidham, Houston Community Coll. Northeast
Kirkus Reviews
2016-06-22
A postmodern fable by the award-winning author of Mary Coin (2013) and The God of War (2008).A childless couple longs for a baby…. This desire launches a thousand fairy tales, including "Thumbelina," which Silver slyly invokes at the beginning of her new novel. As the elderly Agáta Janacek struggles through labor, the midwife encourages her to think of a flower blooming—an echo of the tulip from which Hans Christian Andersen's diminutive heroine emerges. But, just as childbirth is not the gentle opening of a flower, the baby Pavla is not a perfectly formed little sprite. She's a dwarf, all big head and foreshortened limbs. These opening scenes reveal a lot about the story to come. First, that the author is using tropes from fairy tales and folklore in a realist mode. Second, that the novel's brand of realism relies heavily on graphic depictions of human bodies and their various products. There are pendulous breasts, flaccid penises, and Agáta's pubis with its sparse graying hair. There's also quite a bit of sweat, mucus, and ordure. Pavla, as befits a fairy-tale heroine, is beautiful—but only sometimes. As her story progresses, she will undergo several transformations, only some of which make sense. Of course a girl being raped might turn into a wolf. But why would a dwarf stretched on a rack turn into a girl with a beautiful body and a canine face? It might seem ridiculous to argue with fantasy, but fairy tales do have their own logic, and Silver doesn't quite seem to grasp that internal consistency is a large part of the fairy tale's appeal, nor does she seem to appreciate how fairy-tale heroes and heroines function. Because they are types rather than real people, they allow us to project our own desires upon them. Pavla is real enough to forestall this operation but not real enough to be satisfying. Disappointing and often just kind of gross.
From the Publisher
“Marisa Silver’s fantastically inventive new novel counters expectations at every turn….The novel’s open ending lingers unsettlingly in the mind….Silver manages to transform the fairy tale without losing its power.”
—Fran Bigman, The Washington Post

“A parable and a full-fledged, richly told story, with clearly drawn characters who beckon us to come along with them on their journeys….Silver shows us her capacity for fleet-footed writing. Little Nothing is a quick, pleasurable read, but one that’s full of mysteries to stop and unpack.”
—Maddie Crum, The Huffington Post

“In Little Nothing, Marisa Silver doesn’t waver….she delivers a tale as mysterious as anything the Grimm Brothers might have collected….Little Nothing celebrates not only the unruly and lost parts of all our lives but also the possibility of their reordering and comprehension.”
—Thomas Curwen, Los Angeles Times

“A beautifully told, heart-rending, can’t-put-it-down read….Silver masterfully balances a riveting plot with deep meaning—exploring love and its inadequacies, the persistent and unequal power of sexuality, the cost of being an outcast in a fearfully conforming society. And her language is simply stunning.”
—Connie Nelson, Minneapolis Star-Tribune

“Star-crossed lovers…Pavla serves to remind readers of the moral of the story, that a good soul can find transcendence in the face of unbearable odds. And in Danilo readers will recognize their own longing for transcendence and meaning as he transforms himself through pain and sorrow to a man of courage and ingenuity.”
—Publishers Weekly

“Silver spins a fable-like tale of two star-crossed lovers in Eastern Europe in the early twentieth century….Pavla and Danilo circle each other but never quite come together until another startling transformation rips them apart, sending Danilo on a quest to find his lost love. Silver has created a gorgeously rendered, imaginative, magical yarn.”
—Kristine Huntley, Booklist

“Little Nothing is a magnificent something, an inventive, unexpected story that seamlessly blends fable and folklore into the lives of characters who remain heart-wrenchingly real. That Silver wrestles with nearly unanswerable questions—What does it mean to occupy a body? What does it mean to be human? How transformative is love?—and still produces an exhilarating page-turner is a testament to her biting, beautiful prose. In addition to being a joy to read, this book challenged and changed me, and I can’t imagine what else anyone would want from a work of art.”
—Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, author of The Nest
 
“Little Nothing is the key to its own box, which opens and opens, transcending the limits of the very tale one thought one was reading. There is no limit. There is only the vaporous wonder of transformation, and the kernel of a spirit of a thing that can go on, and does. This book is a beautifully realized riddle.”
—Rachel Kushner, author of The Flamethrowers
 
“By turns haunting, fanciful, and poignant, Little Nothing is the latest example of why Marisa Silver is one of our finest, most protean storytellers.”
—Boris Fishman, author of A Replacement Life
 
“Part allegory, part fable, part love story, Little Nothing is unflinching, brutal, and yet exquisitely beautiful. This haunting and original novel—about the lengths people will go to escape persecution, the transformative power of compassion, and how one can find moments of grace and connection in a world filled with heartache—is unlike anything I’ve ever read before.”
—Christina Baker Kline, author of Orphan Train

“In Little Nothing, the wizardly Marisa Silver conjures a pitch-dark tale with empathy and humor. An emotionally suspenseful allegory, the novel reveals how the world’s expectations can torque a woman’s identity and leave a ferocious ache behind. The novel twisted me up inside. I loved it.”
—Lauren Groff, author of Fates and Furies, a National Book Award finalist
 
“With Little Nothing, the peerless Marisa Silver is at the height of her powers. Following one woman’s transformation, Little Nothing reimagines the boundaries between mother and child, human and non-human, possible and impossible. Lyrical, raw, and urgent, this exquisite novel will take you to the outermost edges of heart and mind.”
—Amity Gaige, author of Shroder

“Little Nothing is a wild, witty, and mesmerizing tale that plays with the dissidence of bodies and the transcendence of longing. Marisa Silver writes beautiful, seductive prose that always manages to be both wise and fleet; her inventive, romantic novel is compassionate and moving in wonderfully surprising ways.”
—Dana Spiotta, National Book Award finalist and author of Innocents and Others and Eat the Document

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780399167928
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
09/13/2016
Pages:
352
Sales rank:
126,754
Product dimensions:
6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

Read an Excerpt

Little Nothing


By Marisa Silver

Blue Rider Press

Copyright © 2016 Marisa Silver
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-399-16792-8


CHAPTER 1

Predstavte si kvetinu!" the midwife yells, her voice reaching the baby as warped and concave sounds. "Pictuuure a flowaahhherrr."

Next, another voice, closer this time, the sound so near that if the baby could stretch its arm it might touch it. "You bitch!" the voice howls. "You monster! Get out of me now!" Agáta Janácek is enraged that this should be happening to her even though she has wished for it and prayed for it, consulted the gypsy witch Zlata, and buried amulets of animal bones wrapped in the hair of a virgin for it. But old as she is — and tough threads of gray streak her hair and sprout from the colorless mole on her chin and thinly veil her pubis where there was once a dark, luxurious thatch — the old stories of childhood hold sway. Her mother warned her about this moment. It was a cautionary bedtime story chanted night after night: little Agáta, the prettiest girl in the village, lives in a magical paradise filled with delicious honey-scented medovnik and talking bunny rabbits. Then one day, a terrible monster comes and whispers in her ear words sweeter than any jam, sweeter even than her favorite candies that hang from the Christmas tree each year and which she is forbidden to pull off until Christmas Day, even though this means surrendering the low-hanging chocolate treasures to the mice and rats who skitter across the floorboards at night and gorge themselves, their nocturnal pleasures mapped by a trail of black pellets. But little Agáta cannot resist the tantalizing whispers of the monster and she allows him to touch her face and stroke her body and climb on top of her and shove his hard sausage between her soft thighs. Unh ... unh, her mother would grunt, her voice a striking imitation of the guttural efforts Agáta heard most nights coming from behind the thin lace curtain that separated her parents' bed from the one she shared with her five brothers and sisters. And then, what next? Her mother would continue: Pretty Agáta grows fat as a pig, fat as a cow. Her little tzitzis, once tender and delicate as meringue, become achy and so swollen they have to be held up by a harness of cloth that winds round her back and halters at the nape of her neck. Months go by, and the beautiful, smooth skin of her belly becomes striped like a zebra's as her flesh stretches and pulls. And then finally, after backache and fat fingers and a burning in her gut so fierce she will think a match has been struck inside her, Agáta's body will split in two.

First the body and then the heart. Good night. Sleep tight. The bedbugs will surely bite.

But her mother is long dead and is not here to sigh and shake her head with false sympathy for her daughter's pain.

"A flowwerrrr openingggg," the midwife calmly insists.

"You bitch, you whore, you fucking fuck!" Agáta rages, her voice becoming clearer to the baby as it begins to swim through the dark tunnel, its head pushing against something hard, then something soft, then something hard again, as if it were a flimsy boat, banging up against rocks then drifting into a calm eddy only to be drawn back helplessly into the propelling current once more. "You ugly whore who no man will fuck even with his eyes closed!"

The midwife laughs. She has heard far worse. "A rose opening," she persists, "the petals pushing out ... out ... Ano. Ano. "

The baby twists down and up a U valve, which is something it will get to know very well when Václav Janácek, the father, (who, by the way, is nowhere to be heard, who is hiding in the chicken coop that smells like hell, having been neglected by his wife these past twenty-seven hours of her hair-raising labor) will set his child to crawling around the crude plumbing of the first sinks and toilets in the village.

And the midwife shouts: "It's blooooming, blooming, I can see the bud ..."

"A whore with so much hair growing on your face a man thinks he is making love to a mirror —"

"It reaches for the sunlight, up and up and up and —"

Agáta lets loose with a wretched sound that is so loud in the baby's narrow ear canal that the dawning light is occluded by the sheer thickness of the roar.

"Yes! Yes! A rose! A beautiful pink ... a beautiful ... a —"


* * *

And now, Václav hears nothing coming from the house, not the curses of his wife, nor the scream of an infant, nor the triumphant exclamations of the midwife who can add one more to her tally of live births, only the infernal squawking of the hens. In his panic he picks up a cackling rooster and stuffs its head under his armpit, an action he will regret when he has to buy a replacement for the suffocated bird.

The silence is so dense that it is just as hard on the baby's eardrums as any sound. It is the silence that will become a refrain, when a stranger falls speechless in the child's presence, or when a villager pushes her children behind her skirts as she passes in the narrow market lanes to protect them from what might be catching. The child will learn to hear the complicated messages that fill these silences just the way, years later, imprisoned, it will stand in an unlit cell and study the darkness until all the hues that make it up have been accounted for and named, a painstaking ritual that proves that out of nothing comes everything.

Just as now, out of that hush comes a sound at first so soft that it could be a whisper traveling from the farthest star, from the outer reaches of the universe where all time goes, where all history, all wars, all arguments between husbands and wives, all the unanswered wishes of mothers for their children to be perfect and to live long and happy lives gather and mingle, making small talk about the deluded humans who thought that the past was something that could be put away and forgotten, who believed that the future was a story they could make their own. The small sound begins to stretch and expand until it finally ruptures:

"Ayeeeee!" Agáta howls in fright. "What is this thing?"


This thing, of course, is a baby. Forty centimeters of baby to be precise, although no one bothers to measure. No one thinks to enact the rituals of inspection that normally attend a birth — the delicate washing, the finger and toe counting, the near-scholarly examination of genitalia for signs of future procreative success. No one offers that the child looks like the father (eyes like the downward smile of nail parings) or that it has a mouth shaped like a perfect raspberry-colored bow that Agáta will finally but not now, not yet, claim as her legacy even though she is so old that her lips are no longer supported by a full set of teeth and have nearly collapsed inside her mouth. No one mentions that the baby has hair the color of dead grandmother Ljuba, whose flaxen locks were her pride, for to make these comparisons is to lay claim, to stamp the child as family so that when the cord is cut and the baby is finally free of Agáta's body, everyone will know to whom it belongs. For Václav and Agáta to assert ownership would be to admit that they are cursed, that this child they have prayed for, waited for, that comes to them after neighbors have joked about Václav still being able to stand at attention and about Agáta's womb being filled with cobwebs has turned out to be this thing, this foreshortened object, this disproportionate dollhouse version of an infant. It is as though, coming so late to the feast, the plumber and his wife have been given only leftovers, the hardened heels of bread and the tough ends of beef, that others have passed over.


"A girl," Václav says, still smelling of feathers and dead rooster. He hasn't yet touched the child, only ordered the midwife to unwrap the swaddling to reveal the naked declaration of its worth. He speaks with a little hitch of satisfaction as if the sex somehow proves that the fault is not his. Agáta, who has not yet looked at her daughter since that first, alarming view, lies on the bloodstained bed with her back turned away from the onion basket that serves as a cradle, staring at the varicose cracks in the wall, praying either to sleep herself to death or to wake from what must surely be a nightmare. All the while she murmurs: Is it real? It isn't real. Is it? Even when the baby mews from hunger, Agáta does not reach for her. What use are her false comforts? — her milk has not yet begun to flow. The midwife shows Václav how to settle the baby with sugar water, collects her money, then leaves the house in a hurry, not eager to prolong her association with this blighted birth and damage her reputation.

A day later, Agáta's milk has still not come in, but she is not surprised that it is unwilling to spend itself on such a lost cause. Exhausted by the birth, she sleeps and wakes and then, remembering what she has brought into the world, sleeps again, leaving her husband to administer the sugar water. Perhaps she hopes that if she pays the baby no mind, the child will simply disappear, return to the land of wishes it came from, and that she will wake up with only a memory of a vague but unnameable disappointment that will be forgotten in the daily skirmish of cleaning and cooking and arguing vegetable prices with market cheats. But her crotch will not let her forget. A thing so small ripping her from front to back so that she has to bite down on the handle of a wooden spoon when she pees. Returning to her bed, she glances at the baby girl, who is so tiny, so nearly not there. Her head is too large for her torso, her arms and legs too short. She looks like a rag doll sewn together from cast-off parts. Each time Agáta wakes, it seems possible that the baby's existence is just a magician's trick, and that if Agáta were to look in the basket, she would find only newly pulled scallions.


"My little mouse," Judita, the village wet nurse sings as she rocks the baby against her bosoms that are long and heavy as giant zucchinis. Her brown nipples are so thick that the infant girl gags each time Judita pushes her small face into her curd-smelling skin. "Every one of my little mice grows big and strong and so will you," she commands, shaking the baby in order to get her to suck.

Judita's house, a dirt-floored room with walls blackened from a haphazardly swept chimney, smells sweetly of infant puke. Here, along with three other newborns, the plumber's daughter is rotated from the left breast to the right, then into the hands of Judita's eldest, Vanda, whose job it is to strip and wipe. The sixteen-year-old's expression seesaws between the crinkle of disgust she feels for these shitting machines that are her daily burden and the hard fury of hatred she bears toward her mother, whose body and its uses signal her own utilitarian future. Vanda's task complete, she hands the baby off to her younger sister, Sophia, who diapers the child in sun-starched, wind-smelling cloth that has just been taken down from the line. It is Tomáš, Judita's idiot son, who is in charge of washing the dirty diapers in a barrel whose water is not changed often enough, a job he has been given because he performs his mucky task without complaint. After the baby is cleaned and freshly attired in diapers that are much too large for her tiny body, she is placed in a hay-filled crate, where she dozes and wakes and waits for her turn on the line once again. It is as efficient a system as any being implemented in the new factories in the faraway city where, the villagers have heard, men in white smocks hold stopwatches and notebooks and workers are occasionally sucked up into the machines so that who knows what accounts for the brilliant red of a bolt of cloth? Still, after weeks, when it becomes evident that even Judita's rich milk, responsible for so many of the village's pudgy, no-necked boys and girls, will not work miracles on this tiny, misshapen body, she grows frustrated. By the second month, her little mouse becomes her little rat; by the third, her little cockroach, a freakish, thumb-sized enemy determined to bring down shame on the wet nurse and ruin her business.

"Enough!" she declares one day. She carries the baby from her house down the main street, stomping past the corn chandler and the harness maker and the town gossips with her recalcitrant package held out in front of her as if she were returning bad meat to the butcher and making sure that everyone in the village can smell the proof. She crosses the rickety bridge spanning the river that splits the town in two then marches to the plumber's cottage. There, she finds Agáta on her knees in the garden yanking a clutch of knobby, dirt covered beets from the ground. Agáta's eyes grow fearful at the unexpected sight of her child, who she had hoped not to see for at least another month or perhaps ever again. She stands and backs up a few steps, her pickings shielding her useless breasts. But Judita is adamant, and the final payment for services is rendered: root vegetables for baby.

"But what am I supposed to do with her?" Agáta says, cradling the infant awkwardly so that the child's head flops over her forearm like a heavy bulb.

"First," Judita says, "you could try giving her a name."


Bronislava means weapon of glory, Rosta, seizer of glory, Ceslav, honor and glory, and Miroslav, great glory. But these names that Agáta chose for each seed Václav planted inside her over the decades of their attempts were the ones she buried along with the residue of every miscarriage. The couple's imagination is dulled by thwarted hope and, unable to project any glorious future for the stubby child they have managed to bring to life, this dwarf child who mocks their years of effort, they can only conjure the prosaic. They call the baby Pavla, which means exactly what she is, which is little. She is narrow of body and short of limbs. Her eyes are round and watchful, her gaze both passive and disarmingly intrusive. Although it is impossible, her parents cannot help but feel she can see inside their minds and that she knows their private and sometimes horrible thoughts. She is an uncomplaining baby, as if she senses any kindness turned her way is provisional and that she ought not to draw more attention to herself than is necessary. She remains as quiet as any item in the cottage, as still as the portrait of dead Teta Ivana who picked a rose, pricked her finger, and died of infection, as still as the cuckoo clock that is never wound because Agáta and Václav have no need for timepieces. They feel the passage of the day in their bones, know instinctively when it is the hour to rise, to eat, to work, to sleep, when to commence the weekly argument when Agáta tells Václav that he is courting a terrible fate by refusing to go to Mass, and Václav tells Agáta that he will not believe that God intends for Father Matyáš, who as a boy did questionable things with the back end of a sheep (As did you! Agáta always reminds him. But I grew up to be a plumber! Václav replies) to be the conveyer of His word.

Left mostly to her own devices, which, at four months, are considerably few, Pavla lies in the wooden crib Václav bartered from one of his neighbors in exchange for a cracked commode. The slats create the frame through which Pavla watches Agáta excavate the dark eyes of potatoes with a bent-knuckled knife, yank stringy, gray tendons from chicken legs, wring out newly washed laundry, throttling wet sheets and Václav's undershirts in her muscular hands, and make the soap that she sells at the market. Agáta heats the rendered cooking fat then mixes it with lye that she makes using ashes from the hearth. The blue glass bottle in which she stores the poison catches the sunlight and Pavla's attention so that the very first object she attempts to grasp is this ephemeral cobalt sparkle. Then Agáta stirs and stirs and stirs, stripping off her sweater, then her apron, then her shirt, then her skirt, until she is down to her underclothes. Her skin drips with sweat, her arms and breasts and stomach shake with her exertions. Of course, Pavla knows nothing of rendered fat or lye or the laborious process of making soap, or that her mother drops chamomile flowers or rose petals into her molds because with this small, inexpensive effort, her soaps can fetch a few more coins at the market. But what she does understand is that her mother is a digger, yanker, wringer, twister, and an aggressive and sometimes angry stirrer, and so is somewhat relieved to be left alone. Pavla also observes her mother in the rare moments when the potatoes are boiling and the laundry is hung and there is no fault in the world of her home that she must immediately attack and remedy. Then Agáta will stand next to the open window without moving, barely breathing, as if the wind that charges her hours and days has unexpectedly died down and she has been left stranded in the incomprehensible sea of her life, suddenly aware that she has no purpose except to avoid the one that is staring at her though the bars of the crib. To counter her creeping terror, Agáta tells stories. She speaks not to her audience but to herself, the sound and memory of the old fairy tales as soothing as the bit of worn, soft chamois cloth she carried in her pocket when she was a girl and that she rubbed between her thumb and forefinger when her mother first told her these same stories, the bit of cloth she kept hidden for so many years in a small wooden box, intending to pass down the comfort to her own child. But now, this sentiment seems foolish. Maybe it is even the cause of her heartbreak, because everyone knows it is bad luck to second-guess fate.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Little Nothing by Marisa Silver. Copyright © 2016 Marisa Silver. Excerpted by permission of Blue Rider Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are Saying About This

author of A Replacement Life - Boris Fishman
By turns haunting, fanciful, and poignant, Little Nothing is the latest example of why Marisa Silver is one of our finest, most protean storytellers.
Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney
Little Nothing is a magnificent something, an inventive, unexpected story that seamlessly blends fable and folklore into the lives of characters who remain heart-wrenchingly real. That Silver wrestles with nearly unanswerable questions — What does it mean to occupy a body? What does it mean to be human? How transformative is love? — and still produces an exhilarating page-turner is a testament to her biting, beautiful prose. In addition to being a joy to read, this book challenged and changed me, and I can't imagine what else anyone would want from a work of art. --Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney, author of The Nest
author of The Way Life Should Be and Sweet Water - Christina Baker Kline
Part allegory, part fable, part love story, Little Nothing is unflinching, brutal, and yet exquisitely beautiful. This haunting and original novel—about the lengths people will go to escape persecution, the transformative power of compassion, and how one can find moments of grace and connection in a world filled with heartache—is unlike anything I've ever read before.
author of The Flamethrowers - Rachel Kushner
Little Nothing is the key to its own box, which opens and opens, transcending the limits of the very tale one thought one was reading. There is no limit. There is only the vaporous wonder of transformation, and the kernel of a spirit of a thing that can go on, and does. This book is a beautifully realized riddle.
author of Shroder - Amity Gaige
With Little Nothing, the peerless Marisa Silver is at the height of her powers. Following one woman's transformation, Little Nothing reimagines the boundaries between mother and child, human and non-human, possible and impossible. Lyrical, raw, and urgent, this exquisite novel will take you to the outermost edges of heart and mind.
author of Fates and Furies, a National Book Award Finalist - Lauren Groff
In Little Nothing, the wizardly Marisa Silver conjures a pitch-dark tale with empathy and humor. An emotionally suspenseful allegory, the novel reveals how the world's expectations can torque a woman's identity and leave a ferocious ache behind. The novel twisted me up inside. I loved it.
author of The Nest - Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney
Little Nothing is a magnificent something, an inventive, unexpected story that seamlessly blends fable and folklore into the lives of characters who remain heart-wrenchingly real. That Silver wrestles with nearly unanswerable questions - What does it mean to occupy a body? What does it mean to be human? How transformative is love? - and still produces an exhilarating page-turner is a testament to her biting, beautiful prose. In addition to being a joy to read, this book challenged and changed me, and I can't imagine what else anyone would want from a work of art.
National Book Award finalist and author of Innocents and Others and Eat the Document - Dana Spiotta
Little Nothing is a wild, witty, and mesmerizing tale that plays with the dissidence of bodies and the transcendence of longing. Marisa Silver writes beautiful, seductive prose that always manages to be both wise and fleet; her inventive, romantic novel is compassionate and moving in wonderfully surprising ways.

Meet the Author

Marisa Silver is the author of the novel Mary Coin, a New York Times bestseller and winner of the Southern California Independent Bookseller’s Award. She is also the author of The God of War (a Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist); No Direction Home; and two story collections, Alone with You and Babe in Paradise (a New York Times Notable Book and Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year).  Silver’s short fiction has won the O. Henry Award and been included in The Best American Short StoriesThe O. Henry Prize Stories, and other anthologies. She lives in Los Angeles.

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Little Nothing 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Caroles_Random_Life More than 1 year ago
What a delightful story this book turned out to be! I am really not sure what made me request this book when I saw it offered on First to Read. The cover is okay but nothing amazing. I have never read any other books written by Marisa Silver. Something made me request this one and I am so glad that I did. I was sucked into the story and ended up reading almost all of it in a single day. When I wasn't reading this book, I was thinking about it. This story is a definite win for me. I will say that this is a strange book. I like strange stories so it worked out well for me but I am not sure that everyone will enjoy all the aspects of this story as much as I did. This book is almost like a fairy tale for adults with a bit of magic sprinkled throughout. I was enchanted by all of the magical realism that made up this story. I started reading this book just before going to bed which ended up being a huge mistake because I didn't want to put it down once I started. The way that this story begins was hard to get out of my mind. I was immediately in love with the style of writing found throughout the story. As I continued to read, I started to fall in love with the characters and that love grew throughout the story. I would highly recommend this book to others. This is a story where you can expect the unexpected and suspend your knowledge of what is real for a while and just enjoy the journey. This is the first book by Marisa Silver that I have read but I will be looking for more of her work in the future. I received an advance reader edition of this book from Blue Rider Press via First to Read for the purpose of providing an honest review.