Review of Camilla Grudova’s “The Coiled Serpent”: A Collection of Breathtaking Short Stories
Camilla Grudova has had a successful year, with her first novel Children of Paradise receiving praise for its unique story about rebellious movie ushers. The book was even longlisted for the Women’s prize for fiction. Recently, she was also recognized as one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists for the class of 2023. The release of her latest book, The Coiled Serpent, marks the perfect end to a fantastic year.
The first story in the collection, titled “Through Ceiling and Walls,” begins with an unusual guest arriving in a foreign land, as many great stories often do. This visitor is an unnamed scholar, and the country they are visiting is an island, described as one of the biggest and most remote in the world. It is a dreary place, filled with decaying remnants of a monarchy. Does this sound familiar to anyone? And unlike most good tales, the story ends with a grotesque, one-eyed creature emerging from a clogged sink drain.
Other stories in The Coiled Serpent also seem to mock English exceptionalism. We are taken to small museums, outdated amusement parks, and gentrified towns by the coast, all of which feature England in a recognizable yet distorted way through Grudova’s unique imagination. Old-fashioned “boys” from boarding schools drool under their straw hats, described as either dusty like velvet armchairs or thin and brown like side tables. Even Queen Victoria makes an appearance, submerged in a pool like a diving-bell spider or a large, dark floating object. Despite being Canadian, Grudova’s satire of British institutions is exceptionally sharp and delightfully absurd.
She also accomplishes the impressive feat of maintaining a sense of continuity throughout the collection, almost like making an argument, without the stories becoming repetitive or dull. The settings vary from pseudo-Victorian to modern to dystopian, but all share a focus on the horrors of the present. In The Coiled Serpent, the exploitation inherent in socioeconomic relationships under capitalism is taken to surreal extremes. In The Surrogates, a young woman envisions the couple paying her to carry their unborn child as trying to insert their “small weak heads” into her vagina to monitor the progress of “their” fetus. She imagines a child that belongs to her and her own partner growing around the “big, pink, leech-like baby” with no access to food. This grounding in political reality prevents these stories from becoming overly bizarre and maintains a balance between enjoyable weirdness and self-conscious quirkiness, a challenge faced by any fabulist with Grudova’s level of ambition.
The themes of poverty wages, dilapidated housing, struggling artists, and mundane household chores are all present in Grudova’s work. She often uses vivid comparisons to link the human body with the fleeting symbols of consumer culture – for example, she compares an exposed brain to ramen noodles in boiling water. While this may seem gross, it is also humorous and boldly irreverent. In “The Meat Eater,” a marble bust of Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky becomes a tool for masturbation and develops an unusual skin color. In the story that shares the book’s title, a group of aspiring technocrats attempt to build a supercomputer, engage in a “sexual purification” program, and ultimately explode from their intense physical training.
Grudova’s characters often defy their mistreatment and seek revenge on those who exploit them, using clever and malicious tactics. An example of this is in “Avalon,” where two accidental sex workers flood their basement workplace, drowning their abusive bosses and breaking into their infested home. This story stands out in particular.
Grudova possesses a unique talent for creating vivid and unsettling images that few can match. She describes skylights emerging from a building as “blisters on roasted flesh” and elephant fetuses in jars as “wrinkled old raincoats”. Her writing is refreshingly excessive and tactile, standing out in a literary culture that often favors subtle understatement. In The Coiled Serpent, Grudova’s gothic elements are balanced by a sense of campiness. Her stories have a kitschy quality, akin to the colorful and whimsical nature of Arcimboldo’s paintings or John Waters’ films (Grudova also shares Waters’ fascination with the grotesque). Lists play a prominent role in these stories, whether it be lists of seaside attractions, poisonous plants, food items, neuroses, or various types of accumulated filth. This abundance of lists adds to the architectural and psychological complexity of the stories.
Nicola Barker has described Grudova as Angela Carter’s “natural inheritor”, and I think most writers would be pleased with such an endorsement. Certainly they both draw from the same palette, all blood reds and blue velvets. But Grudova is not an imitator. She’s a thoroughly sui generis visionary – and, after reading The Coiled Serpent, I’d say one of the most startlingly original writers we’ve got.