Monday, October 8

The Dollmaker's Daughter - Abigail Padgett

Just before her phone rings in the middle of the night, social worker Bo Bradley wakes from a weird dream - about a cold, windowless room "filled with grief and anger and a terrible sense of waiting" that her artistic mind, already thinking about recreating it as a painting, was titled "In the Station of the Dead." Unlike her usual weird dreams, typically restrained and confined by her bipolar medication, Bo senses that this is a message. Being bipolar gives her insights, allows her to make connections others don't, but that perception can also be a subtle and enticing step toward mania.
The call is from Detective Dar Reinert, asking her to come down to the Goblin Market, a goth club on the beach - a fifteen-year-old known as Fianna has been found catatonic, clutching an old porcelain doll. And thus begins a complex journey for Bo, as she tries to help the obviously traumatised foster child avoid being admitted to a psych unit, while determining exactly what happened to her. There are a number of mysteries to solve - like why Janny (as Fianna as known outside the goth community) has been in the system for over a decade but has a new and nearly empty case file; what connection Bo's by-the-book supervisor Madge has to the case and why she's being uncharacteristically secretive; and how renowned doll maker Jasper Malcolm's hand-crafted, lifelike, poseable, collectible dolls, used in making realistic but legal pedophilic pornography, fit in.
Padgett once again beautifully conveys the frustration of a woman who risks being labelled every time she expresses an opinion or concern that those around her - not diagnosed with a mental illness - disagree with. It's bad enough when Madge does it, but when Bo's concerned boyfriend Andy LaMarche similarly uses code (like 'difficult' - "A word used to describe uncooperative children...") it makes her reassess their relationship.
The characters in Padgett's writing are subtly nuanced and vibrant - in addition to Janny, and Eva Broussard (Bo's unconventional and grounded psychiatrist), I particularly liked Andy's niece, Teless, sent from Louisiana to San Diego to get away from an unsuitable boyfriend. But all of them are layered and contrary, and it is to Padgett's credit that she is able to convey their complexity with an eloquent, lyric economy of description, always showing and never telling.
Like TV show NCIS (whose creator included a goth character who is not only a positive and contributing member of society but brilliant at her job, well rounded and interesting), she writes about goth culture as coherent and functional rather than peopled by macabre stock characters. The marginalised - the mentally ill, children, the poor - are centralised but not simplified or idealised; she weaves together Cajun, Native American and Celtic traditions so they have fluidity while maintaining their individuality, and she continues the journey's these characters began in Child of Silence while bringing in a new and involving main plot.
It's a real shame that Padgett has only written five Bo Bradley novels, and two about anthropologist Blue McCarron, though perhaps her writing would be less brilliant if she were more prolific. But I doubt it. - Alex

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