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Book review: Duplex by Kathryn Davis

In Davis's latest work of fiction, the real world gives way to a realm of robots and sorcerers in a strangely subtle, affecting way.

By Tobias Carroll

By Kathryn Davis. Graywolf Press, $24.

Kathryn Davis’s fiction comes at the reader obliquely, with subtly revealed stakes that nevertheless create seismic shifts in her characters’ lives. The components of her new novel, Duplex, initially seem down-to-earth: It follows the lives of suburban high-school sweethearts Eddie and Marjorie as they enter adulthood, periodically checking in on one of their teachers, Miss Vicks, and Janice, a woman several years their junior.

The outline seems familiar, but the details quickly turn bizarre. One of the local families consists of of robots; Miss Vicks’s boyfriend is a sorcerer who, like the robots, lacks a soul. Eddie and Marjorie’s paths diverge after a disastrous prom night. Eddie, after having struck a mysterious bargain, achieves baseball stardom, while Marjorie attends art school and finds herself in a loveless marriage to the sorcerer. Children are raised, and traumas managed. Characters echo one another over the course of the novel; dialogue references the foldable nature of time and space, and souls and bodies separate.

The cosmology of this world includes nods to Greek mythology and unfamiliar legends including the Aquanauts and the Rain of Beads. (The remove of these references make one of the novel’s real-world references, to the Challenger disaster, a little jarring.) In marrying the nostalgia of Ray Bradbury with the surreal archetypes of Manuela Draeger and The Hearing Trumpet author Leonora Carrington, Duplex strikes a chord even as the narrative bends into the mysterious. Duplex is a novel as effective in its descriptions of aging, loss and compromise as it is with its manifestations of the uncanny. To Davis’s credit, this juxtaposition never feels arbitrary; rather, it results in a novel that gets under your skin from many different angles.

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