While smuggling their sorcerously animated marionettes into the United States, Canadian puppeteers Deux and Quatre Mains laugh off the cliche questions from customs officers. “Ever get scared that they’ll wake up in the middle of the night and come to get you?” one asks.
But despite the diabolical potential of these strange dolls, humans have the upper hand in Keith Donohue’s new novel, “The Motion of Puppets.” Sawdust and foam rubber, even imbued with the stolen consciousnesses of the puppeteers’ kidnapped victims, are no match for living, breathing men and women. Donohue’s gift is the way in which he shows us his manipulative villains. To all appearances, Deux and Quatre Mains are merely skilled craftsmen, proprietors of a toy shop that is never open. But to their captives, they are tyrannical giants.
Donohue’s unassuming yet self-assured prose describes the impossible so straightforwardly that we have no choice but to accept it. Early in the novel, for instance, the Mainses kidnap an acrobat named Kay Harper and transform her into an actual puppet: “First, they took off her head,” Donohue writes. “Kay could see the rest of her body, straight as a corpse in a coffin, her slender hands folded neatly across her chest. She was surprised by how small she had become.” The inexplicable is left unexplained.
Trapped in the toy store’s backroom workshop, Kay learns from her fellow puppets the rules governing her new existence: no autonomous movement permitted before midnight or after dawn, and no asking questions about their colleagues’ occasional removal from the workshop. Not even dreams of escaping their owners are allowed. Delight and discovery, though, make up the captives’ magical world, and Donohue offers readers many small but potent samples of the joys of performance, the shivery pleasures of an illicit dance.
Throughout this brief, shining novel, the narrative of Theo Harper, Kay’s husband of less than a year, provides readers with a more familiar but still eccentric reality. Theo’s grief over his wife’s disappearance, his outrage at being cast by the police as a suspect in her possible death and his excitement upon spotting her form during a Halloween celebration flesh out his role as Orpheus to Kay’s Eurydice.
Although the structure of that ancient myth is clearly evident in this story, the author incorporates some lovely surprises in his reinterpretation of it. At once old and new, borrowed and original, “The Motion of Puppets” disdains both genre and mainstream expectations to turn readers’ attention to the permeable boundary between life and its mimicry.
Nisi Shawl’s new novel is “Everfair.”
By Keith Donohue
Picador. 272 pp. $26