Kathe Koja's Under the Poppy is a novel unlike any other — even unlike any other of Kathe Koja's books, which are a marvellous genre unto themselves. In some ways, Poppy marks a return to the early-period Koja, the purveyor of dark, erotic poesie, horror novels that dripped blood and fluids and explored the way that art and love and eros twine around themselves, in bottomless tragedy from which joy and beauty shine like pennies in the sewer.
Poppy has all the emotional sophistication of the late Koja, author of spare and lean young adult novels like Buddha Boy, but it also has an epic sweep that is entirely new here, a kind of vastness that breaks free of the claustrophobia through which her people fight and love.
Poppy opens in a middle-European town on the eve of war, sometime in the late 19th century: a disreputable and dirty town full of brothels and cutpurses and spies and intrigue. One such brothel, Under the Poppy, stands apart from the others: it is more than seller of sex: it is a stage where every night, whores act out fantastic playlets, spurred on by the virtuoso piano-playing of a tongueless player who expresses himself in mime and music.
To the Poppy comes Istvan, a puppeteer whose mecs — elaborate clockwork automata — are perfectly suited to the Poppy's stage, being endowed with enormous clockwork organs and Istvan's bawdy and funny-cruel ventriloquism. But Istvan isn't just a travelling jongleur; he is the long-lost brother of Decca, the madame of the house, and the long-lost lover of Rupert, the front-of-the-house man. All three were orphans together in the long-ago, until love and anger drove them apart. Now, reunited, they might have all they ever wanted.
Except for the war. The war, threatening from the distance, is coming to town. With it come conspirators and commanders: Jurgen Vidor, a sexually sadistic mercantile empire-builder; Mr Arrowsmith, the special aide to to the coming forces, and the General, commander of the armies and participant in the vast conspiracy that seeks to take all of Europe for a small cabal of rich and secretive men.
War descends, dreams are smashed, old friendships split at the seams, blood is spilled, the brave are braver, the cowards cover themselves in shame, and coarse soldiers take up residence in the Poppy. When the players and the whores flee for Brussels, the dream is at an end.
This is just the first act, and it's merely the setup for a second act that's long enough to be a book in its own right, in which the stories of minor and major characters retwine: love and betrayal, blackmail and beatings, sex and death, all in that gummy blackness of stained cobbles and old blood.
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.