Marisa Silver’s fantastically inventive new novel counters expectations at every turn. The “Little Nothing” of the title is a girl named Pavla, born in an unnamed Slavic country on the cusp of modernization. Superstition, at first, seems to be the enemy: When Pavla is born a dwarf, she is considered a curse. Yet the unexpected occurs, in an unexpected turn of phrase: “Like a rat or icy wind, love creeps in.”
What is done to her out of love, though, is far worse than what could ever be done to her out of fear. Pavla’s parents, trusting in science, take her to a so-called doctor to be cured, but they unwittingly touch off an odyssey of suffering, violence and, above all, transformation.
When the doctor finishes with Pavla, she is no longer a dwarf, but she is no longer fully human, either. Through the story of Pavla’s shape-shifting, Silver challenges the misogynistic conventions of the classic fairy tale. Women who are transformed into animals tend to be either victims or predators. Recall Odette in “Swan Lake,” cursed by an evil sorcerer, or the women turned into rapacious beasts in the 1942 horror film “Cat People” and its 1982 remake — stories, a Freudian might say, that equate female sexuality with a terrifying animal ferocity. Innocent or sinful, the woman-animal must die in the end.
But Pavla’s transformation is not punishment for her sexuality, nor does it make her less desirable. Pavla and the doctor’s assistant, Danilo, fall for each other, touching off a love story at the heart of the novel. Yet, in another twist on the traditional fairy tale, the villains of “Little Nothing” are vanquished without much effort. The real obstacle to happiness stems from the characters themselves: their inability to realize they are worthy of love. The quest for love becomes an attempt to understand the self.
In a crucial scene, Pavla and Danilo, secretly infatuated with each other, ask a fortuneteller their fate. She prophesies that one of them will doubt, one will believe; one will be brave, one cowardly. At first, it seems that they will be forever on opposite sides. Pavla becomes an animal, Danilo a hunter. Danilo discovers a talent for engineering, while Pavla is a creature of magic. Yet as they undertake their solo, harrowing journeys through asylums, wars and prisons, they realize that these divisions, too, are not as strong as they might seem. The novel closes with another subversion of the classic story when Danilo’s attempt to free Pavla from prison does not go as planned. She is no princess in a tower awaiting rescue.
“Little Nothing” lacks the satisfying denouement of an Angela Carter story, let alone the full reversal of fairy-tale tropes that Carter delivers in “The Bloody Chamber,” her rewriting of the Bluebeard story in which a mother swoops in and kills her daughter’s murderous new husband. Silver’s refusal of closure, though, is a different kind of challenge. The novel’s open ending lingers unsettlingly in the mind. Like Carter, but in her own way, Silver manages to transform the fairy tale without losing its power.
Fran Bigman is a visiting researcher at Keio University in Tokyo, and she writes for the Times Literary Supplement.
By Marisa Silver
Blue Rider. 336 pp. $27