Review: Under the Poppy by Kathe Koja

Under the Poppy by Kathe Koja
Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

YTD: 1

4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful

If you can imagine a marriage between the coy, tongue-in-cheek, clever mysteries of Agatha Christie and the melancholic, whimsical, romantic lyricism of Shakespeare, then perhaps you have an understanding of what Kathe Koja has created with Under the Poppy.  The place is 1870s Brussels, amidst what one assumes is the beginnings of the Franco-Prussian War (at least, this reader assumes, as he is unfamiliar with any other war of this time and place).  The book’s main players – Rupert Bok and Istvan – are life-long lovers, drawn together in boyhood, pulled apart by circumstances.  The two, in their youth, somehow became entangled with the darkest, most powerful and secretive of high-society.  That entanglement, coupled with the two’s dangerous romance (never spoken aloud, but so clear to all), results in a perpetual cat-and-mouse game between the story’s antagonists (de Metz and his servants – the General, in particular) and the puppeteer-players.  The somewhat under-explained history between the two puppeteers (primarily Istvan) and their former masters is what drives the drama onward, resulting in feints and volleys, dashes and escapes, relationships severed and deepened, and, ultimately, wounds scarred, but healed. 

3 – Characters well developed.

What certainly shines in terms of characterization in this novel is the genuine presentation of the main characters, who happen to be homosexual.  In another story, as written by another author, it is likely that these two men (and some of the minor characters as well) would have quickly turned into grotesques – exaggerated stereotypes for the larger perception of “gay man.”  Instead, Koja allows each to be an individual, and both are strong in their own ways, talented in their own ways, and equally devoted to the other, in his own way.  Realizing that the portrayal of these two characters was going to allow for not a “gay historical romance” but just a historical romance, period, quickly afforded me enough peace of mind to truly immerse myself in the story.  The one less-than-perfect aspect to be found in this book, at least for me, is the somewhat shallow characterization and character development.  Now, to be clear, the characterization in the book is good – it just wants deeper and more thorough development.  What is interesting and unusual is that each of the major players – Istvan, Rupert, Benjamin, Isobel, Lucy, Ag, and even Mr. Arrowsmith, are so incredibly recognizable and distinct, and yet still under-developed.  The disappointment, in large part, is not due to the fact that these characters are poor, because they are, in fact, rather fantastic; however, with these characters, there seemed so much more room to grow.  Knowing more of their histories, for instance, their previous interactions with one another – the “how” and “why” of their relationships – would bring so much to the story, enriching it with a deeper substance that just was not present, because these relationships and histories remained largely a mystery.  Of course, the sense of mystery allowed for a dramatic effect, overall, which speaks largely to the book as a play – which, perhaps, is right on point, considering the subject matter and the intent to mirror the puppeteers with their puppet-masters with the string-pulling of the narrative itself.  So, ultimately, one is left not so much with a disappointment in the characters (because who could be disappointed in these beautiful, sad, lonely and heroically tragic creatures?) but in a craving for more – and knowing that the more was there to be had, if only…

4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

This particular section has been a point of contention for me, but I am erring on the side of the artistic, and forcing my personal structural preferences out of the picture in hopes of relaxing and enjoying the aesthetic aspect of the novel, in lieu of proper form.  Of course, one must do this on many occasions with creative works, particularly those with an artistic function and subject-matter (like the stage!).  Still, I will be up front in saying: I like grammar.  I enjoy quotation marks and separated dialogue and internal monologue.  I prefer different speakers to be distinguished by paragraph (or at least line) breaks.  And none of this happened in Under the Poppy.  At first, this made it very difficult for me to sink into the story – until I realized that the point is to let go.  Then, my goodness!  The artistry of the prose, the fluidity of the language, the sensuality and connectivity of the descriptions – no reader could ask for more, particularly from such an intensely romantic novel, which takes itself seriously by virtue of beauty and honesty alone.  There is something strangely cohesive, too, between the relationship enjoyed (ever-painfully) between Rupert and Istvan, and the prose of this work – it is almost as if Rupert and Istvan are whispering their story, and those whispers scrawl themselves across the pages, so that thoughts and feelings, actions and desires, all pour out in series after series of emotional memory. There are points in the story when it almost seems like the words – the passions- are moving right through you, and out the other side, so, suddenly, you are the story and you feel it in every inch of your being.  This is almost impossible to describe, but when a grammatical linguist can become enthralled and moved by a type of free-verse prose, well, that is a laudable accomplishment, indeed. 

Additional Elements:
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

If ever the phrase “all the world’s a stage / and all the men and women merely players” were to fit a novel – this would be that novel.  Koja leaves the reader stunned by the brutal honesty of the story – no punches are pulled, and yet the tale is told so beautifully, so passionately, and so artistically, it becomes hard, at times, to pull one’s self off of this stage and remember that we are only the audience to this bittersweet drama.  Perhaps the most impressive aspect of this novel is its decorum.  How is it conceivable that a story about a saucy and crafty puppeteer, coming to live with his male-lover in a brothel, will turn out to be nothing but heartrendingly sweet and heroic?  In the style of Dumas, less swashbuckler, or Austen, more twisted, it is so;  this incredible tale, which starts off with perhaps one of the most memorable scenes I have ever read, quickly defines itself as a serious, old-fashioned, romance-mystery, the likes of which the Bronte sisters may have admired.  A story like this could have easily become trite or even bawdy, but Koja manages to keep it delicate, tender, and truthful.  Overall, this reader was incredibly impressed with Koja’s performance – the story certainly lives up to the romance of the book’s cover art, which originally drew me to it.  Bravo! Merde! And may the show go on!
Suggested Reading for:
Age Level:  Adult

Interest: GLBT, History, European History, Belgium History, Puppetry, Theater, War, Secret Societies, Romance

4 Comments on “Review: Under the Poppy by Kathe Koja

  1. I’m nodding vehemently while reading your thoughts on Under the Poppy. It is a captivating book and so much seems to be taking place without ever being spoken out loud. I adore the love between Istvan and Rupert but I also believe that the individual characters of the book’s players could’ve been expanded on.

    I’m only at 1/4th of the book, and I still haven’t managed to let go of Koja’s writing style. Where are the individual, clearly defined speeches? The paragraphs? The chapters that are named after one character and actually 100% narrated by that character? Diving back in to (hopefully) discover more…


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