“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.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.90(d)|
About the Author
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***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2016 Marisa Silver
Představte si květinu!” the midwife yells, her voice reach- ing 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 Janáček 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 vir- gin 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 tanta- lizing 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 cur- tain that separated her parents’ bed from the one she shared with her five brothers and sisters. And then, what next? 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 hal- ters 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 fin- gers 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 paper boat in a swift current, 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 Janáček, 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 trium- phant 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 replace- ment 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 his- tory, 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 shaped 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, every- one 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 fore to aft 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 daughter, 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 ma- chines 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 that spans 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. Agá- ta’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 the baby.
“But what am I supposed to do with her?” Agáta says, cradling her baby 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 imagina- tion 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 knows 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 object 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 pas- sage 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 Agate 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 barters 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
S 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 purpose 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 of one 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.
In the Land of Pranksters there reigned a king . . . There once lived a poor, penniless man, truly a pauper . . . A good many years back it must be since the goblin used to dwell on Crow Mountain . . . and the story she tells again and again, the one that little Pavla, even though she cannot yet understand it, will remember all her life:
Once there was an old grandfather who went to work in his field. When he got there, he saw that an enormous turnip was growing there. He pulled and pulled, but he could not yank the turnip out of the ground, so he called his old wife. The man held onto the turnip and his wife held onto him and they pulled and pulled, but still, they could not pull the turnip from the ground. So they called their little granddaughter. The grandpa held onto the turnip and the grandma held onto the grandpa and the granddaughter held onto the grandma and they pulled, but still no luck. And so they called their dog. And the dog held onto the granddaughter and the granddaughter held onto the grandmother and the grandmother held onto the grandfather, who pulled the turnip, but still nothing. And so they called their kitty, who got in the back of the line and pulled the dog, but the turnip wouldn’t budge. Suddenly, they heard a little voice coming from a hole in the ground. It was the voice of a mouse. The grandfather said, “Oh, little mouse, you do not have the strength to help us,” but the grandmother said, “Let her help us if she wants to.” So the grandfather held onto the turnip and the grandmother held onto the grandfather and the granddaughter held onto the grandmother and the dog held onto the granddaughter and the kitty held onto the dog and the mouse held onto the kitty and they pulled and pulled and pulled and . . . the tur- nip came out of the ground! And the grandmother said to the grandfather, “Sometimes the littlest one can be the biggest help.”
Each time Agáta reaches the end of the story, she dismisses the stupidity of the moral. “What a ridiculous bunch,” she might mutter, or, “Anyway, everyone knows that a giant turnip would be as sour as an old shoe.”
As the hours pass and the light in the room softens and the corners recede into shadows, and, as she listens to the low drone of her mother’s recitation, Pavla sees both less and more, for Agáta in shadow is somehow the purer distillation of her character: dark, wary, certain that this world she lives in is not as real as the one she visits in her tales where mountain kings and speaking rams are more comprehensible to her than the day’s weather or the queer human being she has made.
“Oh ho, my wife!”
It is evening and twilight gives up its fight and the night sky closes over the village. Agáta shakes herself out of her reverie and becomes all energy and spin, engaging herself importantly with whatever is at arm’s length—a sock that needs darning, a soup that requires stirring, even, because she can no longer ignore the sweet stink of baby shit, her daughter. The door of the cottage opens and a dark shape fills it: Pavla’s father is home. The tools of his trade hang off Václav’s thick leather belt and he jangles when he moves. This inadvertent music provokes his daughter who waggles her little arms. When Václav notices this reaction, he shakes his hips again, and to his pleasure, his daughter’s eyes grow wide and her mouth forms its first, wobbly smile. This is the opening conversation of Pavla’s life and she does not want it to end so she manifests a noise that sounds like the bleating of a goat.
“Don’t upset her,” Agáta warns, not wanting to have her maternal skills put to the test.
“She’s not upset. She’s laughing!” Václav says, taking off his tool belt and jangling it over the crib. Pavla makes her sound again and watches as her father’s astonishment turns to pleasure, his smile unmasking a mouthful of brown and rotted teeth that emerge from his swollen gums at odd angles like the worn picket fence that surrounds Agáta’s garden and fails to keep out the scavenger deer. Pavla will do anything to keep seeing these teeth and so she laughs and waves her arms and feels, for the first time in her life but not the last, the exquisite pain of love. In a few years, she will put Václav’s screwdrivers and wrenches and bolts of all different sizes to use, dressing the long tools in bits of cloth to make faceless dolls and stringing washers on twine to fashion necklaces for her mother. For now, she follows the symphony of her father as he crosses the room and sits on a hard chair and waits for his wife to pull off his high boots whose soles are impacted with sludge. It is Agáta’s great shame that the handsome farrier she married so long ago, the boy who rode the horses he shod back and forth along the main street supposedly to try out his work but really to show off his powerful thighs to the village maidens, saw advantage in turning his skill with iron and his eye for chance to, of all things, indoor plumbing. “Horses will soon be a thing of the past,” he explained to Agáta, the girl who was most impressed by those powerful flanks, as he lay on top of her in their marriage bed, pushing her knees closer to her face to improve his angle of entry. “But everyone shits once a day. Sometimes twice, if they’re lucky.”
The work was slow at first. The villagers were used to chamber pots and being able to study their bodies’ expulsions for signs of good or ill health, and the notion of what was once inside them disappearing before their eyes made them suspicious. Even Agáta refused the improvement, not fully believing that it was possible for a body to eliminate its waste anywhere but in a boiling-in-summer, freezing-in-winter, always pungent outhouse. Time and again, people would fold their arms and narrow their gazes and ask Václav, “But where does it go, really?” His answer did not satisfy them because even though they talked a good game about heaven and hell to keep their children in line and satisfy that idiot, Father Matyáš, these were realistic people who had a pretty good idea of where they would end up for the rest of time, and who did not fancy the notion of sharing eternity with piles of their neighbor’s crap. But eventually the idea caught on. Now, years later, Agáta is the wife of a man who makes a decent living unclogging the drains and pipes of villagers who have finally stopped squatting in the fields or pouring their slops out of windows to fertilize their flowers but who have yet to learn the idiosyncrasies of modern waste disposal. They are forever putting all manner of objects down their toilets as if to bury their secrets. Love letters from mistresses or the bill for a frivolous hat purchase, fistfuls of hair cut off to approximate some newfangled style advertised in a gazette brought from the city by a peddler, the gazette itself—all these things and more create odiferous backups that warp floorboards and stain rugs. His clients regard plumbing as a sin-exonerating miracle, a daily confession, which is reasonable given the narrow confines of the indoor WCs that are built into the corners of rooms or fashioned from standing wardrobes, and owing to the contemplative and sometimes prayerful minutes spent therein. The villagers have no interest in Václav’s explanations about the curved and narrow pipes that render their efforts at secrecy useless. More than useless, as it turns out, for all it takes for a marriage to crumble is for a husband to be present when the plumber exhumes a clot of bloody towels flushed away because a mother of six has decided a seventh will be the death of her. In fact, Václav turns out to be the opposite of what people assume. He is not a man devoted to the eradication of unmentionable things but one whose very presence brings them to light. When he enters a house, the owners will not look him in the eye, as if he were judge and jury and taxman all at once. He has taken to demanding his fee up front because no man pays another to witnesses his humiliation. But Agáta cannot complain. Her husband provides a living for her and now, she supposes, for the unfortunate issue of her aged womb.
What People are Saying About This
By turns haunting, fanciful, and poignant, Little Nothing is the latest example of why Marisa Silver is one of our finest, most protean storytellers.
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
Part allegory, part fable, part love story, Little Nothing is unflinching, brutal, and yet exquisitely beautiful. This haunting and original novelabout 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 heartacheis unlike anything I've ever read before.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Reading Group Guide
PLEASE NOTE: In order to provide reading groups with the most informed and thoughtprovoking questions possible, it is necessary to revel important aspects of the plot of this novel— as well as the ending. If you have not finished reading Little Nothing, we respectfully suggest that you wait before reviewing this guide.
1. As a baby, Pavla acquires many pet names, from the affectionate (“little mouse”) to the derogatory (“thing,” “foreshortened object”). How does the town’s perception of Pavla change during her childhood? How does her family’s?
2. Agata and Vaclav have a complicated relationship with Pavla, both ashamed and deeply protective of her. What might their efforts to change her say about the nature of parenthood?
3. “I killed her to save the girl I love.” Among other things, Little Nothing is a love story, but Pavla’s physical presence keeps slipping out of Danilo’s hands. What do you think the novel says about the nature of love?
4. Wolves, dwarves, clocks. These are images we see in some of literature’s most popular fairy tales and folklore. How does Little Nothing play with this storytelling tradition?
5. “One of you will be brave, one of you will be a coward. One of you will believe. One of you will doubt.” Do you think the fortune-teller’s prophecy for Pavla and Danilo comes true? Why or why not?
6. Though there are clues that place the story in Eastern Europe during the twentieth century, Marisa Silver deliberately withholds the name of the country, or the year. Why do you think she made this choice?
7. “Look at yourself. What do you see?” he says. She stares into the glass. “Nothing . . . I’m not here,” she says. What do you think Pavla means when she says “I’m not here?” How might this tie into the themes of identity and nothingness that appear throughout the book?
8. One of the novel’s major themes is that of time. The book’s final line speaks of the sky as “ . . . the vast emptiness where nothing and everything exists and where all stories begin.” Talk about how time is explored in the novel.
9. Pavla finds the wolfpack, Markus finds Danilo. How do the surrogate families these characters create compare to those they’ve been born into?
10. “She no longer feels the boundaries of her skin. She is powerful beyond strength. She is beyond.” Pavla’s final transformation is mysterious and sudden. What do you make of her disappearance? What do you imagine is next for Pavla, or do you think her story has come to an end?
11. Love, loyalty, transformation, parenthood. Which of these do you feel Little Nothing is most about?