The Doll's Alphabet

The Doll's Alphabet

by Camilla Grudova


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"This doll's eye view is a total delight and surveys a world awash with shadowy wit and exquisite collisions of beauty and the grotesque." —Helen Oyeyemi, author of Boy, Snow, Bird

"Down to its most particular details, The Doll's Alphabet creates an individual world—a landscape I have never encountered before, which now feels like it was been waiting to be captured, and waiting to captivate, all along." —Sheila Heti, author of How Should a Person Be

"Marvellous. Grudova understands that the best writing has to pull off the hardest aesthetic trick—it has to be both memorable and fleeting." —Deborah Levy, author of Hot Milk

Dolls, sewing machines, tinned foods, mirrors, malfunctioning bodies—by constantly reinventing ways to engage with her obsessions and motifs, Camilla Grudova has built a universe that's highly imaginative, incredibly original, and absolutely discomfiting. The stories in The Doll's Alphabet are by turns child-like and naive, grotesque and very dark: the marriage of Margaret Atwood and Angela Carter.

Camilla Grudova lives in Toronto. She holds a degree in Art History and German from McGill University, Montreal. Her fiction has appeared in The White Review and Granta.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781566894906
Publisher: Coffee House Press
Publication date: 10/17/2017
Pages: 192
Sales rank: 774,150
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

Camilla Grudova: Camilla Grudova lives in Toronto. She holds a degree in Art History and German from McGill University, Montreal. Her fiction has appeared in The White Review and Granta.

Read an Excerpt



One afternoon, after finishing a cup of coffee in her living room, Greta discovered how to unstitch herself. Her clothes, skin and hair fell from her like the peeled rind of a fruit, and her true body stepped out. Greta was very clean so she swept her old self away and deposited it in the rubbish bin before even taking notice of her new physiognomy, the difficulty of working her new limbs offering no obstruction to her determination to keep a clean home.

She did not so much resemble a sewing machine as she was the ideal form on which a sewing machine was based. The closest thing she resembled in nature was an ant.

She admired herself in the mirror for a short time then went to see her neighbor Maria, across the hall in her building. When Maria saw Greta, she was not afraid for she suddenly recognized herself. She knew that she looked the same inside, and could also unstitch herself, which she did, unashamed, in front of Greta.

They admired each other, and ate almond cake as they did every afternoon, but now using their newly discovered real mouths, which were framed by steely, sharp black mandibles which felt like a pleasant cross between teeth and a moustache.

When Greta's husband came home he was horrified. He had never touched her sewing machine before — it frightened him — and he would certainly not touch Greta's newly discovered body.

She moved across the hall to live with Maria, who was a widow and no longer had a husband to frighten. She brought her sewing machine with her.

Their sewing machines were not used but kept around the house, decoratively, the way they used to keep saint figurines and dolls, and the way grander people kept marble portrait busts of themselves.

They were a sensation the first time they left the building to do their shopping. After seeing other women unstitched, it was impossible not to do it, and soon all the women in their neighborhood had shed their skins.

It brought great relief to unstitch, like undoing one's brassiere before bedtime or relieving one's bladder after a long trip.

Men were divided between those who "always knew there was something deceitful about women" and were therefore satisfied when they were proved right, and those who lamented "the loss of the female form." There was also a small minority of men who tried to unstitch themselves with the aid of razorblades and knives, only to end up wounded and disappointed. They had no "true, secret" selves inside, only what was taught and known.

On the unstitched bodies of women, there were various small hoops, almost like pierced ears, through which a red thread continually flowed, speeding or slowing, depending on the individual's mood. It was a thick, tough thread covered in a wax-like substance.

On each woman, the hoops were in slightly different places and of various sizes but, otherwise, all the women looked alike.

After the unstitching, sewing machines were no longer used; the act of using one, of stitching things together, was seen as a form of repression, an outdated distraction women used to deny themselves unstitching, and so sewing machines took on a solely formal, aesthetic role, beautiful in their quiet stillness.

Exhibitions of sewing and sewing machines "throughout the ages" were put on and greatly enjoyed, reminding women of their evolution towards unstitching consciousness.



Our apartment always looked like Christmas because the shelves were laden with red and green Loeb books in Greek and Latin. Peter's uncle gave him one every year for his birthday, and we had bought more from second-hand shops. Whenever we had guests over, Peter had to point out that he had covered the English translation side of the Latin books with sheets of colored paper. He and I met in Latin class at university. I was drawn to Latin because it didn't belong to anybody, there were no native speakers to laugh at me. There were private school kids in my classes who had studied Latin before, but I quickly overtook them. Peter, who was one of them, slicked his hair back like a young Samuel Beckett and had the wet, squinting look of an otter.

He looked down on Philosophy and Classics students who planned to go into law. Under his influence, so did I. Peter wore the same type of clothes every day: heavy striped shirts from an army surplus store, sweaters that hadn't been dried properly after washing, khakis, Doc Martens, and a very old-fashioned cologne whose scent vaguely resembled chutney. He had bought the cologne at a yard sale, only about a teaspoon had been used by the previous owner. It wasn't until we had dated for some time that I learned his parents were lawyers, that he had grown up with much more money than I had.

Peter and I were married in a church with a replica of Michelangelo's Pietà. We only invited one friend, an English major who loved Evelyn Waugh, as we thought he was the only person we knew who would understand we wanted to be married in such a manner. Of course our parents wouldn't want us to be married so young — before we had jobs — so we didn't tell them at all. We didn't move in together until our last semester of university, into an apartment above an abandoned grocery store. The landlord had stopped running it years before and left it as it was, with a faded "Happy Canada Day" poster and popsicle advertisements on the dusty glass windows. It was cheap for a one-bedroom, because not many people wanted to live above an abandoned but unemptied grocery store — the threat of vermin seemed too much, and the landlord just couldn't bring himself to clean it and do something with the space. It seemed he thought he might open it again some time in the future, to sell the moldy chocolate bars and hardened gum that remained there.

There was a hatch in our floor that led to a back room in the shop downstairs, and into the shop itself. Down there, Peter found some old cigarettes which seemed safe in comparison to all the old food, and newspapers that dated from when we were five years old. In our living room we had a parlor organ that had belonged to his grandfather. Peter loved the organ — it was a much, much older instrument than the piano. Organs were invented in the Hellenistic period. They were powered using water. In Ancient Rome, Nero played such an organ.

On the organ's mantel, Peter put a plaster model of a temple which fits in the palm of one's hand, a statue of Minerva bought at an Italian shop, a collection of postcards of nude athletes Peter got from the British Museum, and a large framed copy of Botticelli's portrait of St. Augustine. Sometimes I was woken up in the middle of the night by the sound of Peter playing the organ, wearing nothing but his bathrobe, his hair in his face.

We turned a little chair too rickety to sit on into an altar. We made a collage of saints and Roman gods, a mixture of pictures and statues, and oddly shaped candles we had picked up here and there — beehives, trees, cones, owls, angels. Sometimes Peter left offerings, grapes, little cups full of wine, and to my dismay, raw chicken breasts and other bits of meat he bought at a butcher's. A friend told us it was dangerous to worship such a large, mixed crowd.

After graduating, we planned to live cheaply and save up to move to Rome. We both thought there was no point in applying to graduate school unless we first spent a period of time in Rome researching something original to write about.

In the meantime, I found work in a doll's house shop. We sold tiny things to put in them, from lamps to Robert Louis Stevenson books with real microscopic words in them. Peter got a job in a graveyard, installing tombstones, digging graves, helping with Catholic burial processes, and cleaning up messes. He would find diaphragms, empty bottles of spirits, squirrel skins left over from hawks' meals, and dozens of umbrellas. He brought the umbrellas home, until our apartment started to look like a cave of sleeping bats. I had an umbrella yard sale one Saturday when he was at work:


It was an overcast day so I did well for myself.

Peter was sombre-looking and strong so everyone thought him ideal, and his Latin came in useful. He was outdoors most of the time. He developed a permanent sniffle, and smelled like rotting flowers and cold stones. There was a mausoleum that was a perfect but smaller replica of a Greek temple — Peter spent his lunch breaks smoking, reading, and eating sandwiches on the steps. It was built by the founder of a grand department store that sold furs, uncomfortably scratchy blankets, shoes, and other things. Peter threw his cigarette butts through a gated window leading into the mausoleum, as he didn't think such a man deserved a classical temple. He was half driven mad by the cemetery —"a dreadful facsimile of Rome," he called it — but couldn't afford to leave. It paid very well because not many people were morbid and solemn enough to stand working in a cemetery. The owner said Peter was very dignified and he could see him going far in the cemetery business.

We both put up advertisements — "LATIN TUTORS AVAILABLE" — in bookstores and libraries, but received no replies.

Living together we became careless compared to how we normally acted with each other, and a few months after graduating I discovered I was pregnant. When I started to show, I was fired; the owner of the doll's house shop thought I would bump into all the precious little things with my new bulk and break them. I felt like a doll's house myself, with a little person inside me, and imagined swallowing tiny chairs and pans in order for it to be more comfortable.

When we learned we were having twins, Peter said the ultrasound photo looked like an ancient, damaged frieze. As I grew larger, I wore pashmina shawls around the house, tied around my body like tunics.

Neither of us had twins in our families. It was the Latin that did it, Peter said, did I have any dreams of swans or bearded gods visiting me? He acted like I had betrayed him in a mythological manner. I had dreams that Trajan's column and the Pantheon grew legs and chased me, which I didn't tell him about, as I thought they would upset him further.

One night Peter didn't come home from the graveyard. He arrived at dawn, covered in mud, his coat off and bundled under his arm. He opened the coat, inside was the corpse of a very small woman, a dwarf I suppose. She wore a black Welsh hat like Mother Goose. It was glued to her head. She had black buckled shoes and a black dress with white frills along the hem, wrists and neck, and yellow stockings. Her face was heavily painted, to look very sweet, but her eyelids had opened, though she was dead.

We buried a small, black coffin today, said Peter, I thought it was so terrible, the eternal pregnancy of death. If we are to have two, what difference will three make, he said, and laughed horribly, like a donkey. He had never laughed like that before. I dug the coffin up again, took her out, and put the coffin back empty, he said, no one will know.

Peter stumbled off to bed, leaving me with the little corpse. Her eyeballs looked horrible. I thought I would turn to stone if I looked at them too long. I threw Peter's coat in the bathtub, wrapped her in a sheet, put her in a garbage bag. Then I picked her up. She was extraordinarily heavy. I decided I would stuff her in the organ, it was the only good hiding place, but I had the horrible thought that it would become haunted with her, and the keys would play her voice.

I brought her down to the grocery store, and put her behind the counter. She was heavy. I hoped if she stayed there long enough she would shrink like an apple, and Peter could bring her back to the graveyard well hidden in a purse and rebury her like a bulb.

I kept thinking about her eyes, and later returned downstairs to put pennies over them. The pennies didn't cover the whole of them, they were very large eyes, but I didn't want to waste one-or two-dollar coins.

Peter slept for twenty hours. When he woke up, he didn't remember what he had done, so I didn't tell him. As he recovered his accusations against my pregnancy redoubled: I had consorted with ancient pagan gods. He sat in the bathtub with no water in it, reading St. Augustine and burning incense. He left for Mass on Sundays without me. We had our own odd version of Catholicism where we went to a different Catholic church every Sunday, while on sporadic Sundays we went to a large park that was mostly forest and took off our clothes and drew crosses on ourselves with mud as Peter muttered incantations. I never knew which church he was going to. I stayed home and read my favorite passages from The Metamorphoses.

He boiled our marriage certificate in the tea kettle, saying he wouldn't work in a cemetery for the rest of his life just to feed the children of Mars and, finally, he left, while I was at the grocery store buying him lettuce and coffee.

When I came home, his bulky green leather suitcase, which reminded me of a toad, was gone, as were a selection of the Loeb books, the jar of Ovaltine, and my favorite purple wool cardigan which was too small for me to wear with my pregnant belly. He had left all his underwear, most likely out of forgetfulness, and they stared at me like the haughty, secretive heads of white Persian cats when I opened the clothes drawer.

I found his parents' address on an old report card. I had never met them. The house was in the suburbs, I had to take a train there. There weren't any sidewalks, only lawns and roads. I passed a frightening house with a sagging porch. Between the door and the window there was a rotting moose's head on a plaque. The moose winked at me. The movement caused the moose's glass eyeball to fall out and roll across the porch and onto the lawn.

It was a very large fake Tudor house, the white parts were grimy, and there was a bathtub on the lawn, used as a planter for carnations. There were two very old black Cadillacs parked in the drive, probably from the 1980s. I had grown up in an apartment with only a mother who didn't know how to drive. It was Peter's mother who answered the door, I knew it was her because she also resembled an otter, her grey hair slicked back from her face. She wore a very old-fashioned looking purple suit, and grimaced at my stomach.

I asked her if Peter was there, and she said no, he had gone to the States for law school, she was glad he was finally getting himself together.

I left, feeling sick, imagining the babies swimming in my stomach like otters, with the faces of Peter and his mother. I ran back to the train station, not caring if the motion killed the fetuses. Back downtown, I wondered what it would be like to be run over by a tram — perhaps like being pushed through a sewing machine.

I didn't have enough money to pay the rent the next month. I hoped the landlord would forget me the way he forgot his grocery store, but he came a few days before the month was up and asked for checks for the next three months in advance as he was going to Wales to visit his cousin.

I had to leave all the furniture and the organ, we couldn't afford to rent movers. I scooped all the stuff off the organ's mantel and dumped it in my purse. My mother scolded me when I tried to pack Peter's clothes and other things. He hadn't taken his razor, his galoshes, or his long maroon scarf. My mother and I took what we could, box by box, on the tram, and once in a cab, my arms weighed down with plastic bags filled with Loeb books. I was glad to leave the old dead woman, whom I hadn't had a chance to check on.

My mother lived in a dark ground-floor apartment, she had moved after I started university, to a smaller place. It only had one bedroom, so I had to stay on the couch. All the furniture was blue and green brocade, and there were trinkets I remembered from childhood: a wooden horse missing its two back legs, a paper clown in a music box which started to dance when you opened a little drawer on the bottom, a model ship covered in dust, a collection of toy donkeys I was never allowed to play with because they had belonged to my grandfather, and all sorts of things bought at yard sales, discount shops, and in Chinatown — baskets, pincushions, backscratchers, plastic flowers, peacock feathers. It was a horrible thing that you could buy peacock feathers for less than a dollar.

There was no room for all my Loeb books, I had to put them underneath the couch where they became all dusty.

When I was little, my mother had given me a department store catalog to read. It was full of toys I couldn't have, but I could cut out the pictures, she told me, she had already looked through the catalog. I was amazed by a set of twin dolls: how did they manage to make them exactly the same? My mother laughed at me and said there were hundreds of them made in a factory, and everything else I owned had identical siblings, that's how the world was now.


Excerpted from "The Doll's Alphabet"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Camilla Grudova.
Excerpted by permission of COFFEE HOUSE PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

The Mouse Queen,
The Gothic Society,
The Doll's Alphabet,
The Mermaid,
Agata's Machine,
The Sad Tale of the Sconce,
Edward, Do Not Pamper the Dead,
Hungarian Sprats,
The Moth Emporium,
Notes from a Spider,
Reader's Guide,

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