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Kathryn Davis: Duplex

In The Thin Place, Kathryn Davis took a fairly conventional New England town but used it as the stepping stone to something else. In this book, she takes a specific street, somewhere, sometime in the US and again uses it as a stepping stone but this time mixing both science fiction and fairy tales to tell her story. The street is a fairly conventional street. The houses are duplex houses, though they seem to be what, in the UK, we would call semi-detached. Children are playing in the street at the start of the novel. Our first indication that something is not quite right comes when an expensive car drives down the street. It is apparently driven by a sorcerer, known as Body-without-Soul. We later learn that he seems somewhat ordinary, a rich man called Walter Woodard, who, at the start of the novel, is having an affair with the teacher, who lives at No 49, Marjorie Vicks who says of him The man is a beast. However, at Number 37, lives a family of robots. Are they really robots? This seems to be the case. They do not sleep nor do they eat. They need to recharge their batteries. Their surname seems to be XA. While some of the other families seem to recognise them as robots, they nevertheless seem to integrate well into the local life. Cindy, the daughter of the family, for example, goes to school with Mary the heroine of this novel and will later have a boyfriend and children. However, she comments As a robot she knew that human bodies had been created to an identical template, one that had been established long ago and owed almost everything to the skeletal structure of the great apes. Apes or humans—we all made the same mistake, tempted by shifting leaves or the smell of sex, by music or a ripe banana.

The two main characters, at least initially, are Mary and Eddie. These are two children living on the street, close friends and everyone (including, presumably, the reader) has determined that they will be sweethearts. They play together and do things together. The novel starts with the first day of the school year. Eddie, for some reason, has not turned up. Miss Vicks is worried but neither Mary nor Eddie’s mother seems bothered. We later learn that he has been taken to a sort of enchanted place on the old Woodard Estate. This estate was built by Walter Woodard’s father, also called Walter, but has now become overgrown. In the middle is a lake and there is an island in the middle of the lake. It seems Eddie has been taken or gone there. What happens there, we are not sure and, indeed, Eddie more or less denies it in later years but, whatever happened, he seems to have changed. However, Eddie and Mary remained close. However, Eddie has become a top-class baseball player and is offered a contract by the Rockets (for non-Americans, there is no major league baseball team with that name, though there are minor league ones, while the Houston Rockets is an NBA basketball team). When Mary gets pregnant, he makes it clear that she must get rid of it, as having a child is not going to help his baseball career. She does. He goes off to the Rockets and they lose touch. He will again be taken to an enchanted place, this time probably some sort of tower (he thinks it is the local water tower) when he is injured during his very successful baseball career. Mary, meanwhile pursues a career at art school, before getting married.

The robots theme continues. The passage of time made no sense to the robots; their farsightedness extended backward and forward in ways that bore no relationship to it. They could see everything that had happened and everything that was going to happen—the only thing they couldn’t do was change what they saw. The robots needed us to change things, the same way we needed them to think for us. Of course what they saw looked completely different. However, we also continue with the fairy stories, include a succession of strange stories, starting with the disappearance of a number of girls and their reappearance as molecules in beads which rain down on the town. Janice, a fairly ordinary young woman, though somewhat bossy and pretending to be all-knowing, is the one who recounts this and other stories to the new generation of girls. But Davis keeps us anchored in the real world, with the girls first of all being obsessed with trading cigarette cards and then becoming obsessed with writing stories about horses.

So what is this novel about? Part of it, clearly, is about being yourself or, more particularly, being true to yourself. That Eddie and Mary were meant to be together, at least in the traditional novel/fairy tale story, is clear. That Davis is also trying to tell a fairly conventional story, disrupted by science fiction and fairy tale elements is also clear. In other words, the conventional story can be told in different ways. Ultimately, however, the conclusion must be that this novel is open to varying interpretations and that is also no doubt what Davis intended. It did not really work for me and, I suspect, will not really work for many readers but it is, nevertheless, an interesting experiment, which may not quite have succeeded.

Publishing history

First published 2013 by Graywolf Press