Set largely in a Victorian brothel in wartime, Kathe Koja’s Under the Poppy grabs readers at the outset with a terrifying murder. But as with many scenes in a book that is as much about theater as whoring, things are not what they seem.
Koja creates a panorama that moves between ravaged streets in a barren town and elegant ballrooms and gardens in Belgium, around the 1870s, weaving a tale of love interrupted by forces that include extreme poverty, war, and homophobia.
Istvan, a man of many masks, and the enigmatic Rupert share a bond that dates to their childhood. Because Decca, Istvan’s sister, loves Rupert, she wants to keep them apart–when they’re together, neither needs her. What at first appears to be a novel about one love triangle becomes a series of scenes of love unrequited, centering on the trials of committed partners who must ward off intruders to survive together. Istvan and Rupert each are loved by others, men and women, some of whom are willing to lie, keep secrets, break promises, maim, or murder to have their way. A severed head, a severed finger, an eye, and a pearl-and-opal stickpin with a vein of black play parts in Koja’s evocative two-act novel.
Rupert and Decca run the Poppy, a brothel that is also a playhouse, where whores dress as angels, mermaids, beasts, and other characters demanded by patrons who want to live out their fantasies. Downstairs, off-color entertainments feature prostitutes and puppets built by Istvan, who “can make an onion cry as he peels it.” His raunchy puppets draw strong responses, too. They even cry and bleed, the better to keep patrons “on the verge”–roused, but not too much. But sometimes his purpose is darker: to embarrass or expose a spectator, or worse. For these occasions, Istvan builds new puppets in the image of his target.
Frequently changing viewpoints and fluid segues in and out of flashbacks illuminate actions readers have already witnessed. Part of the fun is heading into the past after knowing the future; even knowing where the story will go, you still wonder what will happen next.
That’s because however much we want to know what will happen in a story full of twists and intrigue, we want most to understand what is going on between and inside the characters. What does each character want, the army men, the whores, the society folks? And how far will they go to get it?
Before you enjoy an involving read, come to the Blackbird Theatre in Shaut Cabaret on Wednesday, November 10, where a puppet show accompanies a reading by Rusty Mewha, Jamie Weeder, and Koja. You might want to appoint a lookout. Anything can happen to anyone under the Poppy.