The Short Version: Molly’s mother was disappeared by the government when she was younger. Now, she and her father William (a violinist-turned-epitaphorist) live a quiet life in an increasingly violent and dangerous city where no one goes out after dark and people die in the streets. But when William goes out on an errand late one night and does not return, she and her neighbor create a puppet show in the hopes of explaining and perhaps saving their story.
The Review: I continue to make one simple mistake with Jesse Ball’s work and that is not setting aside enough time to read his novels in a single sitting. The Curfew is, of the three I’ve so far read, perhaps the one that requested it the most strongly – and I was aware of that, every time I picked it up to start again on my commute or had to put it down to go to bed. Each time I came back to it, there was a moment of feeling of pushing through a slight barrier, of needing to pass back into the story instead of just jumping right in – as though the story was, perhaps, a little miffed at me for not settling down with it and allowing it to come fully to life. But also, if you’re asking whether or not stories can feel miffed at their readers, perhaps Jesse Ball is not for you.
Ball’s conceit here is somewhat easier to grasp right off the bat than some of his stranger flights: a father and daughter live in a totalitarian state, some time in the past (or a past-like country), and the wife/mother was disappeared by the government some time ago. That’s it, there isn’t much more really. They live a quiet life under the shadow of an oppressive state – and while the state isn’t made clear, it doesn’t particularly need to be. We see enough in the opening scene, when someone is shot one night on the street outside of their flat but neither of them awake; they are used to this sort of thing, awful as that might be. William, the father, knows how to behave when he’s approached by a person who might be considered a dissident. Molly, the daughter, is smart enough to know that her world is not quite how it should be – and smart enough to know not to push too hard in ways that could cause trouble. This story is familiar not because of its particulars but because of its general aesthetic, which is as old as the stories of George Orwell. In fact, some sixty-odd years separate Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Curfew, but they feel like they could be siblings in either temporal direction.
Ball’s voice here has a warm fireside tone, reminiscent of Alec Baldwin in The Royal Tenenbaums or Patrick Stewart in the opening of The Nightmare Before Christmas. There is a twinkle in the metaphorical eye, even when describing horrible things and a passion in the storytelling that allows the emotional heart of the story itself to be amplified. This is particularly noticeable when the story shifts from the actual present tense action to the puppet show in the back half of the novel – to carry the cinematic metaphor further, one imagines Mr. Gibbons being played by the same person who was providing the narration (ed. note: playing two different roles, not implying that Gibbons was doing the narration the whole time). This book never lacks the quality of being a story, told to us by someone, but its conscious recountative dressings make the fact of storytelling intrinsic to the novel. It matters that there is this unnamed and unimportant intermediary delivering this story unto the reader.
The book is also, by my so-far-admittedly-only-half-complete Jesse Ball experience, the most charming of his novels. Some of this comes from Ball playing with his standard formatting on the page – for example, Molly, who is mute, speaks with asterixis instead of dashes (as most Ball characters do) and William’s epitaphs are offset in ways that subtly but clearly evoke a tombstone. But much of it comes from the almost folkloric nature of some of the facets of this story. William is a violin prodigy turned epitaphorist, which would be twee if it weren’t handled so poignantly; William’s epitaphs, which he treats like puzzles to be solved, are things of perfection and beauty across the board. His consideration and care are evident in every thing that he does, both at work and at home – the best example of this being the game he and Molly sometimes play called “This and That”. It involves puzzle clues written and hidden around their apartment and it is wholeheartedly one of those charming things that I want to adopt into my own life, whether now with my partner or later with my children (or both).
The book’s emotional center rotates on a single idea: that there might be more information out there about the disappearance (and, by extension, almost certain death) of Louisa. William decides to go out late and get this information from some subversive former friends… and then takes the bold decision of coming back home after the unofficial but strictly enforced curfew. His daughter, left in the care of their older neighbors, joins forces with Mr. Gibbons (one of those two elderly neighbors) to create a puppet show – and here, a certain amount of playful metafictional magic begins to seep into the novel; there is a real sense that there’s more than meets the eye in this puppet theater. Is this because there’s actually something supernatural or extraordinary? Or is this just something from the mind of an imaginative young girl? Or, perhaps the best option of all, is it something on a spectrum between those poles? Regardless of the actual answer or how you interpret it, it is impossible not to feel some pulse of magic as the book speeds towards its conclusion and Ball delivers an ending that lands like a sudden pause in pop song that then delivers you a tremendous endorphin rush as you swirl back into the familiar chorus.
Rating: 5+ out of 5. This one is meant for a warm cup of something nice by a window on a crisp, clear autumn Sunday. I know I say that about a lot of things, but believe me on this one: there’s just something in the prose, in the feeling of the story, that makes me think that that’s a perfect way to read it. This is, on its surface, a simple story – totalitarian, a historical European feel, a father and daughter struggling in the face of unknowable entities larger than they… but with Jesse Ball, nothing is ever so simple as it seems. Or, perhaps, it’s that even the simple things are imbued with a dash of narrative daring and dexterity. One thing is for sure, no matter how you come to grok it, this is a truly beautiful novel from one of the most brilliant authors working today.