Until now, Amelia Gray has been known for her three books of moody, quirky and sometimes violent stories often compared to the likes of David Cronenberg and Jorge Luis Borges. Weirdness abounds: a middle school boy vomits every time he opens his mouth; a young woman gives birth to a new baby every night; a “how-to” story instructs “Fifty Ways to Eat Your Lover.”
But her work is not all blood and spontaneous babies. Gray also has an austere streak, doling out starkly realistic stories that chart romantic disintegration or static grief. Her sentences are painfully precise. Thrills come from telling gestures and original thoughts rather than plot twists.
“Isadora,” however, charts a new course for Gray. Gone is the occasional coldness and fabulist tricksterism. Here, Gray explores the mind of Isadora Duncan, the mother of modern dance, who “claimed that if the ideal of beauty could be found in nature, then the ideal dancer moved naturally.”
It is April of 1913, a year before the outbreak of World War I. Isadora enjoys vast fame across Europe and America and runs a school in Darmstadt, Germany, for elite protegees intent on following her into a “glorious new movement.” When her two young children drown in a freak accident in the Seine, Isadora’s world shutters. “My mind turns to regret,” she says, “an emotion that has lately found an endless quarry in me, my mind’s darkest tunnels bearing cartloads of salt for the wound.”
The novel is split into four parts, following Isadora’s unraveling by locale — Corfu, Constantinople, Viareggio and Paris — over the course of a year. Though Gray features a roving cast, much of the novel spins around Isadora. Her sections are told in the first-person; all others are in third.
Paris Singer — Isadora’s lover, father to her youngest child and an heir to a sewing machine fortune — spends the novel saddled between constant worry and managing the household. When Isadora travels to Greece to recuperate with her sister, Elizabeth, he stays behind to look after their flood of guests. “They had become tourists to his tragedy, inserting themselves into his grief,” Gray writes.
In Constantinople, Isadora persuades an admirer not to kill himself but to come to her hotel room, instead. They lie around naked and drink wine. “The only missing thing is satisfying sexual congress, though we certainly tried,” Isadora says.
More than once, Isadora herself considers suicide. She carries around her children’s ashes, ingesting them slowly through the course of the book. “I can eat only when the flavor is attended by the subtle ash of the children in my mouth.”
Everyone in Isadora’s universe is preoccupied: Paris becomes obsessed with aviation; her sister, Elizabeth, pines for a lover she meets in Corfu; Elizabeth’s “man,” Max, looks after Isadora’s school, dreaming up and implementing a calisthenics routine he knows Isadora will despise.
“I prefer her bedridden, honestly,” Elizabeth tells her lover at one point. Most probably would. Isadora picks fights constantly and rarely concedes. But sympathy for her is gained through the details of her younger years in squalor, living in hotel rooms and performing on the streets.
“Narrative arcs and character tropes are just rules to break,” Gray told the New Yorker in an interview. Indeed, the only conventional plotline here involves Max’s scheme to implement calisthenics, which crops up only occasionally. Instead, the novel focuses on these characters’ preoccupations, which highlight the ways they ignore one another’s pain. Isadora is so confounded by her fame and grief that she’s in the dark about her own emotions, even as her expressive dances capture the world’s attention. Gray portrays that great irony in heartbreaking detail and psychological acuity, her language hinging lyrical flight with wry directness. It can be difficult, at times, to sit through Isadora’s sections. She’s selfish, rogue, headlong, unavailable. But the novel’s greatest test is also its greatest strength. You might not like me, it says, but what do you know of extraordinary grief?
Josh Cook’s writing has appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review, the Iowa Review and the Millions.
By Amelia Gray
FSG. 386 pp. $27