~by Kathe Koja
I was very interested when Kathe Koja's Under the Poppy was offered through LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program. Although I am unfamiliar with Koja's previous work, she has been nominated for and has won several awards and honors, including a 1991 Bram Stoker Award for her first novel, The Cipher. Under the Poppy is a novel meant for adults due to its subject matter--a historical tale set in the high society, theaters, and brothels of 1870s Belgium--and that is exactly what appealed to me. So, I was very happy when the Almighty Algorithm paired me up with Under the Poppy. I was even more excited when my review copy arrived and I discovered that Koja was a native of Detroit which really isn't that far from where I live now.
Located in an out-of-the-way town near Brussels is a unique brothel called Under the Poppy. In addition to its bawdy stage shows, the Poppy specializes in making its patrons' fantasies realities, adding elements of role-play instead of just providing a good fuck. The whores' performances in the front of the house and behind closed doors attract clients with sometimes dubious proclivities who are willing to pay good money to indulge in their perversions. Decca and Rupert, co-owners of the Poppy, take good care of the men and women who work there and they all form an odd sort of family. Decca is in love with Rupert while he is in love with her missing brother and puppet-master Istvan with whom he grew up on the streets. When Istvan suddenly appears at the Poppy and with war looming on the horizon, everyone's lives are thrown into turmoil. Even more troubles closely follow Istvan's arrival as dangerous and powerful men become involved with the affairs of the Poppy and its people.
I really wanted to see Rupert and Istvan happy together, but the time and place make their relationship difficult at best not to mention their own personal capriciousness and stubbornness getting in the way. Once they've been reunited, the war (which I assume was the Franco-Prussian war--I don't remember it ever being explicitly stated) only signifies the start of their troubles. At times the book conveys an almost overwhelming sense of dread and impending heartbreak. There's plenty of drama happening both onstage and off as the characters deal with blackmail, betrayal, and deceit. With an intricate web of manipulation and performance, it is difficult for the men to know who is really working the puppet strings in their lives, but it is certain that they are not always the ones in control. Ultimately though, Under the Poppy is a love story.
I loved the story, I loved the characters with all of their failings and charms, I loved the gritty setting. By all rights I should have loved Under the Poppy. But I didn't, and it was mostly because of the writing style. A large part of the novel is written in a highly-stylized, third-person present. While occasionally stunningly beautiful in its phrasing, overall I found it difficult to follow and the dialogue confused. However, the sections interspersed throughout the book narrated by secondary characters were marvelous. Looking beyond the style, I really did like Under the Poppy. Apparently there is also a stage production planned for the Detroit Opera House which I wouldn't mind seeing. Taking place in a historically vivid setting, Under the Poppy is an emotionally captivating story that is unfortunately hindered by its presentation in the novel.