Silk by Caitlin R. Kiernan

May 20, 2009 at 7:31 pm (Caitlin R. Kiernan, fantasy, fiction, horror, novels) ()

After writing four negative reviews in a row, I promised myself I wouldn’t write another until I found a book I could say something nice about. I wasn’t expecting Caitlin R. Kiernan’s Silk to be that book. Once perched at the top of my “to read” pile, months of unhampered spending pushed Silk to the middle of the stack as I heaped new purchases on top of it. After being disappointed by my latest urban fantasy / paranormal romance / sci-fi adventure reads I decided I needed something different and Silk fit the bill. I hauled it from the heap and discovered a diamond.

Birmingham’s grunge  and goth scene may be flooded with posers, but Spyder Baxter is the real deal. A schizophrenic loner with her own novelty shop, Spyder is the definition of “eccentric.”  Young scensters follow at her heels whenever she steps out with her girlfriend Robin and best friend Byron. She may be the unofficial patron saint of alienated youth, but Spyder has a secret. There is something evil lurking in her basement and she is the only person who can keep it from getting loose and destroying everything she loves.

After months of bitching and moaning about flat characters it was refreshing to read a book over flowing with  fully fleshed out, three dimensional characters. Kiernan is well aware that showing trumps telling when it comes to characterization. Instead of telling the reader that her heroine Daria Parker has a bad temper, she offers several scenes in which Daria goes off on her junkie boyfriend. Instead of telling the reader Spyder is mentally ill we get to watch her down her meds every morning.

Character is everywhere in Silk,from the exposed brick facades on the run down buildings of downtown Birmingham to the contents of each characters pockets. Kiernan knows that people are built out of details. On page 7 Kiernan introduces us to Daria Parker. The first two paragraphs tell us worlds about the town itself as well as Daria’s place within it.

“Daria sat by herself on the sidewalk, fat spiral-bound notebook open across her lap, back pressed firmly against the raw brick, pretentiously raw brick sand-blasted for effect, for higher rent and the illusion of renewal, the luxury of history. The cobblestone street was lined with old warehouse and factory buildings, most dating back to the first two decades of the century or before and sacrificed years ago for office suites; sterile, track-lit spaces for architects and lawyers, design firms and advertising agencies.

The felt-tip business end of her pen hovered uselessly over the page, over the verse she’d begun almost a week ago now. A solid hour staring stupidly at her own cursive scrawl, red ink too bright for blood, and she was no closer to finishing, and the cold – real Christmas weather – was beginning to numb her fingers, working its way in through her clothes. Daria closed the notebook, snapped the cap back on her pen, returned both to the army-surplus knapsack lying on the concrete.”

Kiernan manages to paint a vivid picture of the Birmingham that exists within the novel, a  town well on its way to gentrification that still hasn’t lost its sense of history or its seedy under belly. She also uses location as a way of developing character. Seeing Daria sitting alone on the sidewalk outside of a warehouse, the reader automatically identifies her as an outsider. By watching her try, and fail, to write new song lyrics we discover she is an artistic type – a singer and musician. Her hovering pen and her decision to quit writing for the day hint at her own precarious place in the world; an inability to move forward that is echoed by the pretentiously down-trodden buildings around her that can’t quite decide if they want to be upscale lofts or run-down squats. By the end of the first scene I felt such a kinship with Daria Parker that I would have followed her into any story. Kiernan gives all her characters the same thorough and honest rendering, creating an intimate world of complex people.

As you can see, Kiernan has a way with words. Her language is so evocative  it’s practically a form of teleportation. From the very first sentence I felt like I was in the story; I could hear the streetlights as they flickered to life and see the cracks in the sidewalk.  

Silk is littered with intriguing descriptions and turns of phrase. On page 171 she describes a character who has been slapped as having “palm-print impressions framing his face like the tailfeathers of kindergarten turkeys.” On page 180, as Byron struggles to find the right key on an over-burdened keyring to fit a particular lock, when he finds it Kiernan says it slides in “cocksmooth.” I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t think to associate sex with the physical act of unlocking a door. It’s that unexpectedness coupled with Kiernan’s insight that makes her comparisons so remarkable.

Published in 1998, Silk has a distinctly post-grunge, Generation X vibe to it. Daria, Spyder, and Niki trip through the novel on a wave of uppers and downers that make the reader wonder how much of the story is real and how much is imagined. Though Kiernan builds great tension throughout the book, it ends with a sigh rather than the bang I was hoping for, and that’s my only complaint.

Silk is hypnotic. Kiernan’s engaging characters, evocative language, and Southern Gothic flavor will suck you in faster than the baddies in Spyder’s basement. You can bet I will be running out and buying the rest of her books ASAP, and this time I’ll make sure they stay at the top of my “to read” pile.

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