“It has come to be that I can eat only when the flavor is attended by the subtle ash of the children in my mouth.” So confesses Isadora, in Amelia Gray’s intricately spun biographical novel of the same name. The book is at once an exploration and an invocation of Isadora Duncan, innovative choreographer, performer, and a real-life mother of modern dance. Duncan’s son and daughter were killed in a horrible accident—a tragedy that jabs the rest of the story into being—and for several opening chapters Isadora secretly ingests her children’s cremated remains.
Body-bound expression and confession should not be new to connoisseurs of Gray’s writing. Consider the human ashes that arrive in the first paragraph of her previous novel, Threats. Consider the short story “Dinner,” in which Beth, a woman on a date, is expected to ingest a plate of tangled hair. Gray knows the power of a body in mourning, a body carrying a child, a body reduced to dust, a body consuming another. Her writing plays with the way these states overlap, a muddled chronology of matter changing shape. And yet, for every raw, grisly passage, there lies a frolicsome wonder at work, and we are treated sentence by sentence to the writer’s irrepressible exuberance.
This playful approach is not so different from Isadora Duncan’s own relationship to dance. She was naturalistic in her style, an improvisational tact that belied each rehearsed, memorized, and documented gesture. Duncan was often mistaken for inventing her performances on the spot. In one passage, Gray describes an early dance class led by Isadora and her family:
Watching the girls skip to cross the stage or bend to adjust a strap on a sandal, their mothers felt a nagging sense of familiarity. They could hold ballet at arm’s length and leave it behind when they left the room. But this wasn’t something they recognized from the ballet; they were watching their very own youth dance before their eyes.
That “nagging familiarity” is part of the wizardry of Gray’s prose. Her turns of phrase have the power to evoke both the familiar and the strange: a first impression “like a thumbprint on warm dough,” or “an hour draining into a surgical tray.” There is a visually stunning sequence on a cattle boat, in which the Duncan family watches animals mate, assault, rupture, fall ill, and die. It’s a shocking scene, especially juxtaposed against later scenes of dance, both aimed at uncovering the true nature of beauty. By entering a pas de deux with her reader, Gray can confidently change the steps halfway through, and it’s not until you’re knee deep in the weird, the wonderful, the absurd, that you realize you have danced your way far from any recognizable home. Each chapter gleams under the spotlight of an opening, summarizing sentence: “Isadora’s sickbed on Corfu, where illness threatens jovially to level her.” These give the impression of supertitles, or watching a silent film; each dramatic shift in the story both hindered and framed by the turn of phrase that comes at the front. It’s a welcome tension, a pull and push of text, an undertow of mourning.
Isadora, at its heart, is a meditation on loss. The narrative focuses on the year Isadora’s children drown, when the world is also on the cusp of the first World War. Where much of historical fiction takes a maximalist approach, Gray’s research locks on a specific moment in time and doubles down on the intimacy. It is through this deeply personal lens that we can picture a larger world on the brink of war. Loss is both an echo and a reverberation, and we can feel the acute prescience of mortality, as though one personal death can predict another widespread death. Elizabeth, Isadora’s sister, observes that funerals provide “a strange comfort. At least they delivered on the eternity they advertised.”
The story jumps hands frequently, nestling with characters close to Isadora for short scenes, including sections featuring her lovers and the father of one of her children, Paris Singer, son of the sewing machine manufacturer. While I craved the passages devoted to Isadora (she is the only character who speaks in the first person), these perspective shifts do nice work to create distance and desire. Isadora hides from a parade of mourners, and we become the mourners, searching for her between the lines. The story is as much about the Duncan family as any one member, the way tragedy can fracture and fragment experience.
Gray’s body of work thus far creates a compelling case for grief not as a paralytic, but rather, as a portal. In her more fabulist fiction, grief is the point of access that allows for a new sensibility to take over, bending any previously understood rules as a way of coping. Her previous novel, Threats, uses this to great effect, spinning the grief of a bereaved husband into a new, paranoid world. In Isadora, the world is mostly realist. A child is a child is a child. The world is made new not through conceit, but through language. Isadora dreams of her children returning and says, “They smell of river stone.”
In Threats, a husband remembers his deceased wife as smelling “of a wet stone, as if she had been created from the stream that ran behind his childhood home.” I welcome these similarities; they convince me that Gray is writing a language for loss, muddy river stones building a golem for grief. “Grief is the only hope for the poor soul flailing in the water,” Isadora says, “the only stone the body can hold that might have the weight to sink it.” Whether these stones and words are meant to save or sink us is perhaps not the point. Perhaps a sinking is a saving, and I’m grateful to have Gray as a guide, when submerged.