In The Motion of Puppets, Keith Donohue has followed up his earlier excursion into the realm of the magical and supernatural in The Boy Who Drew Monsters with another workmanlike visit. This time mixing a base of Alice in Wonderland and Pinocchio with a touch of Gone Girl.
Theo Harper, a professor of French, and his wife Kay are subletting an apartment in Quebec. She is rehearsing for a role in the ensemble for a Cirque de Soleil type troop and he is working on a translation of a biography of motion study photographer Eadweard Muybridge. One night after rehearsal, Kay goes out for drinks with some of the cast, and on her way home she is frightened when she feels she is being followed. Passing a familiar toy and puppet shop that has intrigued her but has always been closed during the day, and seeing a light, she decides to go in.
The next morning, Theo wakes to find his wife missing. The Motion of Puppets is the dual story of what happened to her and his search for the woman he loves. Donohue colors that search with all the patina of the mythic quest: one character talks about the Argonauts when they set forth, another talks about a stream they are crossing as the Styx, and Theo himself, Orpheus-like enters a modern stand-in for the underworld in his search for his Eurydice.
Indeed the mythic element is important in getting the reader to buy into the novel’s magical fantasy since Donohue makes no attempt to give the reader any reasonable explanation for the events of the story. The world of the novel is a world where the metamorphoses of humans into puppets and puppets into humans is part of the given. Donohue following in the tradition of Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto, the first of the Gothic horror novels, doesn’t bother to explain supernatural events. How they occur is one of those mysteries best left to the reader’s imagination. Either you are willing to believe or you needn’t bother reading.
And that would be a shame. Donohue has a gift for drawing vibrant characters. Theo’s passion for his missing wife even as time passes is detailed with care. Kay is surrounded by a gaggle of puppets, ranging from three Russian sisters (yes, those sisters) to a Queen right out of Alice Through the Looking Glass, each with their own unique character traits. There is a charismatic little person, Egon, for Peter Dinklage to play in the movie. Kay’s distraught mother, confined to a wheelchair, nevertheless plays an important part in discovering clues to her daughter’s whereabouts and a bossy Scottish neighbor woman in a very minor appearance adds flavor to the mix.
The Motion of Puppets is literate fantasy with a bite.