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Under the Poppy: A Novel Paperback – October 9, 2012
"Warlight" by Michael Ondaatje
A dramatic coming-of-age story set in the decade after World War II, "Warlight" is the mesmerizing new novel from the best-selling author of "The English Patient." Learn more
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"Koja has a ventriloquist’s skill when it comes to inhabiting the voices of her characters . . . A gothic, glam-rock take on love and sex and death that reads a little like what would happen if Sarah Waters and Angela Carter played a drunken game of Exquisite Corpse in a brothel, Under the Poppy will make you want to get out your very finest crushed velvet, drink a couple bottles of wine, and do something a little bit illegal with someone very good-looking. In other words, it’s a winner."
"All the elements of a great novel are present in Koja’s work: from suspense and intrigue to undying love and toxic jealousies, this highly developed read is brimming with imaginative flair and originality."
"This book is different, magical, seductive, and strange. However, there are books to which "Poppy" has ties, however wispy: think The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera mixed with The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek lightened with Fanny Hill by John Cleland and layered with The Satanic Verses, A Passage to India, and Mrs. Dalloway."
Bethanne Patrick, Beyond the Margins
"People will probably love this book or hate itpossibly both. But let me just say that it would take an author of extraordinary talent to open with a scene of a woman being sodomized by a ventriloquist’s dummy and make me want to keep reading.
"And Kathe Koja is that talented. Five stars."
Speak Its Name
"The velvet and brocade, the rips and tears, the music and theater, you see it all as you read about what the denizens of the Poppy do to stay in business, stay ahead of the tide, stay alive."
Colleen Mondor, Chasing Ray
"Frequently changing viewpoints and fluid segues in and out of flashback illuminate actions readers have already witnessed. Part of the fun is heading into the past after knowing the future; even when you know where the story will go, you wonder what will happen next."
Ann Arbor Observer
"The brothel of Kathe Koja’s Under the Poppy requires no time and space coordinates. It is a fictional universe unto itselfrich and bawdy and violent and sad, with a beating human heart underneath. I love Koja’s daring and flair."
Louis Bayard (The Black Tower)
"I loved Under the Poppy. It pours like chocolatelaced with brandy; sexy and utterly compelling!"
Ellen Kushner (Swordspoint)
"Throughout the story there is an undercurrent of darkness. I can think of no better way than this to describe it and it keeps you reading, pulls you on and on through the narrative. Tied into this sense of the creeping grotesque is the fact that Koja is skilled at depicting how close to insanity art can come. I have fond memories of the mad genius of Skinhow far Koja was willing to push her story and her characters for the sake of their art and there is a similar feeling here. Istvan is driven and he cannot be anything other than what he isa player, an actor and puppeteer. At the same time, he is drawn to Rupert and Rupert to him. Their relationship is painfully realnothing is perfect or sugar-coated. They hurt each other, they try to mend their rifts, attempt forgiveness and do their best to accept the other as they are. It’s superbly done."
Girl on Book Action
"Few books I’ve read about the theater capture its dazzle as luminously as this one does. The performances are integral to the plotline; one cares about the performances because one cares about the characters, and one cares about the characters in part because of how they perform. Intelligent descriptions and a compelling cast make reading Poppy an intense, lingering experience . Each section was a burst of images. I wanted to read it as slowly as I might eat a rich mealsavoring each bite before taking another."
Rachel Swirsky, Cascadia Subduction Zone
"Despite all the trappings of puppets, sex shows, stabbings, and drawing-room treachery, this is a love story about how, sometimes despite themselves, Rupert, Istvan, and their friends have created a family. . . . she creates an atmospheric tale for those who like their historical fiction on the dark and lurid side. Those readers who enjoyed Emma Donoghue’s Slammerkin or Sarah Water’s Fingersmith will find similar themes."
"A page turner with riveting language and close attention to sensory detail. Set in late 19th-century Brussels, the story follows the adventures of puppeteer Istvan and brothel owner Rupert who bond as friends and lovers."
"Koja can pack a lot Dickensian humor into a sentence . . . [she] takes a page from Victorian lit in her writerliness, and she reveals human nature like someone slipped her the manual."
Cleveland Plain Dealer
"This book made me drunk. Koja’s language is at its poetic best, and the epic drama had me digging my nails into my palms. It’s like a Tom Waits hurdy-gurdy loser’s lament come to life, as sinister as a dark circus."
Cory Doctorow, BoingBoing
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The Poppy is a brothel in an unspecified Victorian-era city, offering theatrical performances as well as sex. The first half of the book moves at a lightning pace as lovers are reunited, war threatens and arrives, and mounting crises end in a bloody climax.
In the second half of the book the Poppy is only a memory; major characters have disappeared, never to be heard from again. The setting has now expanded to the whole of Western Europe. The war is over, but the intrigues and linked fates that began at the Poppy (and earlier) are still being played out. It's a reversal of the normal structure for a novel on this size canvas, starting with world-shattering events and then shifting to the personal--more like a novel and its sequel under a single set of covers. But Koje is not playing by anybody's rules other than her own, and I never felt the urge to argue with her.
The most obvious influence is Brecht and Weill's THREEPENNY OPERA, with a bit of Dickens and a hint of CABARET, but none of those comparisons prepare you for Istvan's grotesque and unsettling puppets, or the machinations of the General, who might have stepped from a play by Yevgeny Schwartz, or the agonized romanticism of the doomed poet Benjamin.
If you are only familiar with Koje's wonderful YA novels, be aware that this is a very adult novel--but no less passionate, intense, and moving.
This is a murky, complicated story in which things are not always explained, people do not always have happy endings, and events are not always what they seem to be. The first half of the story focuses mainly on a strange triangle. There is Decca, the madam of the brothel known as Under the Poppy. Rupert is her "front man," a job that is a little bit of the businessman, a little bit of the bouncer, a little bit of the host. Opinion is divided on these two; are they siblings? Lovers? Both? Into the house comes a puppet master named Istvan who clearly raises some strong emotions in both Decca and Rupert. Much of the first half of the book is the playing out of the emotional script between the three of them. The second half begins as a new triangle: Rupert, Istvan and Lucy, but rapidly becomes a series of interconnected triangles, and new relationships that reiterate old ones in curious patterns.
Koja presents us with a cast of characters who are all-too-human, who do terrible things to each other, never seem to quite know what they want (Save for Istvan, and even he is brought up short on a few occasions.) People whose hearts break or simply stop beating. And for all that there is a clear divide between the world of the brothel and the world of 1870s society, what is even more clear is that there really isn't much difference between a whore and a nobleman. As one character says, which of us hasn't sold ourselves?
But in the end, the language is what carried me away. It's gorgeous, rich, quirky. It flows along like a river, like a song. And it requires patience and attention. If you're not willing to give both, don't bother with this book; you'll hate it.
I finished and very nearly went back to the beginning to start again, that's how much of a hold the narrative had on me. But I think I'd best put some distance between myself and these people before I reacquaint myself with them. They're all a bit dangerous, and I think I love them.
The setting isn't strictly defined - it starts in a 19th century brothel, maybe Brussels? SOME place around there anyway, on the verge of some random 19th century war. Maybe that might bug some people, but I kind of think it works because it's a little bit like a fractured fairy tale - the exact time and place don't really matter. Two people in love, evil forces threatening that love, mysterious benefactors, mysterious villains, lush surroundings. It IS a fairy tale, just with lots more sex and I personally think that's just swell.
Poppy is a very decadent book. It's fully of pretty girls and pretty boys and corsets and crazy be-wanged puppets. I'm pretty sure I've seen that word in other reviews about it before, but that's because it fits so well. It's sexy and classy and basically just makes you feel like you should be reading it while lounged on a velvet chaise, drinking champagne. Kathe Koja has a unique way of writing - almost stream-of-consciousness, laced with very vivid details. I kind of felt like I was reading it through an opium haze sometimes, because that stream-of-consciousness writing can be hard to follow. Maybe that just added to the book's appeal, haha. I don't think that's a fault in Koja's writing, rather that it's just not as easy to read as most things you'll find on the shelf.
So here's the thing: I have bought two copies for two of my girlfriends, who love history and drama and the whole Belle Epoque era. I wouldn't recommend it to my ultra conservative grandma or anything, because there IS sex (with people AND puppets, crazy!), and there's cursing and there's just a general air of debauchery that is going to possibly startle people who just picked up on the 'historical romance' aspect of this book. But if you are a debauchery fan like I am, and if you like finely crafted, heartbreaking drama, then you will most likely enjoy Under the Poppy.
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