London’s Shadows; Finland’s Lights
Review On the Shoulders of Otava & Naming the Bones
Before reading Laura Mauro On the Shoulders of Otava, I decided to pick up Naming the Bones—which has been idle on my shelf too long. Having greatly enjoyed their collection, Sing Your Sadness Deep (published between these novellas), it was interesting to juxtapose Mauro’s debut and most mature fiction to date. What follows are my reviews of these two books.
[H]er sister Shannon—paediatric nurse and know-it-all—who had suggested she memorise the individual bones of the human body. It was a game they’d played as girls, asserting intellectual superiority through memorising trivia—an ultra-competitive ‘bet-you-can’t’ which had endured into adulthood.
Our hero, Alessa, survives a bomb in London’s underground, but soon after sees creatures she comes to call ‘Shades’, a name taken from Homer’s Odyssey; deadly, spectral entities ‘drawn to fear and trauma’. Mauro’s debut novella, Naming the Bones, uses the traumas and experiences of its characters (Alessa is soon joined by the pretty but naively risk-taking Tom and enigmatic Casey) to explore, in fact, the traumas of its setting.
In many ways this supernatural horror anticipates my favourite story from Mauro’s collection Sing Your Sadness Deep, ‘When Charlie Sleeps’, in its exploration of how somewhere like London feels to reside In, the haunted, strange atmosphere of its streets and other hidden places, and especially those areas that give off ‘just… a certain vibe, that this is not a good place.’ This is a book about personal calamity, but as a microcosm for the social decay and encrusted history, the charm and horror, of a particular place.
This sense of society in decline comes out often. In the abandonment of the city, for example, ‘Do you have any idea how many unused tunnels there are on the Tube?’ Casey asks Alessa in a later scene, while they explore this labyrinthine cavernous network of tracks to finding the shades' secret dwelling. Earlier, Alessa attempts to access help for her mental distress, but is soon bewildered by British bureaucracy. We get the sense of how things become ‘lost, perhaps, in the great paperwork vortex of the NHS.’ And London is somewhere always reinvented as swathes of it are discarded; a process happening under contest, in a tense play of domination.
Gentrification was a slow but persistent process; the Elephant seemed to be resisting quite admirably, but it was a losing battle. The expensive new-builds came with coffee shops built in, and a rash of boutiques and delis seemed to be sprouting like fungus all over the place. But for every artisan sandwich bar that appeared, three more chicken shops followed, annexing the newcomer with land fill quantities of empty cardboard containers and meat-stripped bones in the gutter. Regeneration would not happen here without a fight.
Alessa has a narratively rewarding mix of agency and fear; her actions are propelled by desperation, but she does not merely respond to events. And Mauro’s prose is excellent at bringing out her subjectivity, forcing the reader to inhabit her perspective: ‘Despite the ache in her leg and the dust on her tongue it still felt as though all of this was nothing more substantial than an extraordinarily vivid hallucination.’ This is a talent that will continue to be on display in later narrative works by Mauro, where point of view, often limited, often claustrophobically imposed, features so prominently.
The next book Is also concerned with place, albeit somewhere far removed. Where we find a continuity is in the woman at this books centre, who shares a lot of Alessa's survivalist drive, and the intrusion of some other, psychogeographically specific notion of the monstrous. Monsters tied to place, and here, even more prominently, to a time as well.
Combining historical fiction with indie horror, but also some of the aesthetic sensibilities you might expect in a Ghibli film (that meeting of worlds, that ethereality), Mauro's On the Shoulders of Otava is set during the Finland’s civil war in 1918 and its protagonist, Siiri, is a member of the Women’s Guard of the Red Army.
We learn that ‘the enemy called them all she-wolves’ while the Communists more cynically dub them ’the last word of the proletariat’. (Cynically because this was far from how they were treated.) Siiri clings to a revolution she struggles to believe will succeed; she is a desperate believer, a principled one, and contrasted to others who are naively unsuited or made opportunistically sadistic by these circumstances.
The relationships between the characters flits between the violence of the situation and the intimacy of those who share in that experience. Siiri holds on to ideals obliquely, she fights without relish and disdains those who adopt the false bravado of the men, ‘As though wearing men’s clothing means that one must act exactly like a man.’ She also consistently upholds her own reason for being there, against the sneering of others, ‘Does he really think he can afford to be choosy about whether we have dicks in our trousers?’
The book is never bluntly didactic, but equally it is impossible to read without perceiving the absurdities and hubris of those who judge the world through their superficial certainties. Such certainties always fall apart In Mauro's fiction, but they do so very pointedly in this novella.
Certainties including gender, but also the dismissal of other powers besides that encapsulated by our carnage of one another. Mauro, in particular, subverts expectations of strength and fragility. Appearances of strength are only that, illusions. Likewise appearances of weakness. Or rather, this fiction frequently uncovers the hidden weaknesses (the brittle qualities) of strength, and the hidden strengths of weakness (its adaptability, humility before the unknown). A contrast between two characters, Annikki and Esther, each central to Siiri’s story, illuminates this well. Neither proves as they seem.
Siiri is propelled by her protective loyalty of others, which causes her to take risks and become embroiled in supernatural danger, in dancing lights, which have something eerily to do with the background conflict (just as the shades in the earlier book cannot be separated from London). Annikki observes, ‘Maybe all the fighting disturbs them, and they come out of hiding.’ The novella is careful about showing its world, and indeed the magical realist elements are soft enough that a fair reading—not mine—could attribute the events to tricks of psychology.
The prose is amongst Mauro’s finest. A third person limited account steeped in Siiri’s consciousness. There is a climatic encounter, dreamlike and visceral all at the same time, that's both monstrous and compelling. Also noteworthy is the dialogue; there’s a continuity with Naming the Bones in this respect too: in the easy naturalness of how characters talk, the flow of insults and vulnerabilities, of defensive banalities broken by slipped confessions. So much comes out indirectly in the chatter and disputes, obviating the need for exposition.
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