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The Curfew

by Jesse Ball

About.com Rating 3.5 Star Rating


The Curfew by Jesse Ball
© Vintage
Vintage, June 2011

Jesse Ball's novels are not for those who seek a quickly gratifying read. Samedi the Deafness, The Way Through Doors, and his enthrallingly enigmatic new novel The Curfew are each well-wrought riddles that will shadow readers in murk and mystery. Ball's novels seem destined for the darkest, dustiest corner of an old library. They're the perfect peculiarity to stumble upon in the stacks, as these novels have the means to transport unsuspecting readers into the unfortunately unpopulated realm of contemporary experimental fiction. These are novels better suited for a private journey, though: Ball's stripped-down style requires readers to form his fragments into a cohesive story, an experience that will vary drastically from person to person.

But what of The Curfew, Ball's dystopian new novel set in the totalitarian city of "C."? By sharing this novel with you, am I dampening the surreal experience you would have if you discovered this book on your own? Then consider this review an encouragement to simply find Jesse Ball, and when you do, forget everything I'm about to tell you and experience his work yourself.

It's likely that C. stands for a near-future Chicago, but it could just as well as well stand for "Caligari"; the city is a disorienting backdrop with little depth outside the basic understanding of its rules and regimes:
"The town was called a town, but it was a city... There had been a jail once, but now there was no need for a jail. The system was much too efficient for that. Punishments were either greater or they did not occur at all... Everything was strictly controlled and maintained, so much that it was possible, within certain bounds, to pretend that nothing had changed at all."

And families did try to carry on in C. as if nothing had changed. William Drysdale, a single-father who lost his wife to the city's cryptic system, lives a simple life with his eight-year old daughter in an attempt to persevere through the outside chaos.

William is an epitaphorist, employed by the city's mason to meet with bereaved families and discuss what's to be carved into their departed's gravestone. William is a busy man, as C.'s death toll has been steadily rising since The Curfew was instated. Before The Curfew, William was a violinist, but was forced to renegotiate his profession when the government banned music. As an epitaphorist, William is able to secretly imbue his work with outlawed artistry and compassion. Whether it's noting that the deceased could "skin a pig in the dark" or making a secret second gravestone for a widow so she didn't conflict with her in-laws, it's apparent that William's empathy and fearlessness is a rare combination given the oppressive nature of their city.
Compassion gets the best of William when an old acquaintance claims he knows what happened to his wife. William is determined to find her, but runs out of time - when the sun sets and curfew begins, William is still outside and slips entirely off our radar. As if Jesse Ball too is following the rules of C., he takes the action of The Curfew indoors after dark, and for the remaining half of the novel follows William's daughter Molly as she writes a play to be performed by her babysitter's puppet theatre.

Molly pieces together her family's past and future in fragmented theatrical vignettes, and it's through this play that Jesse Ball fully forms The Curfew's story. In these scenes, Ball experiments further with narrative and typographical form, awaking new threads to his story without directly returning to William and his quest for answers.

As puzzling as it is fleeting, The Curfew is a novel that will surely require a few re-readings. This is a likely task considering the novel's length and sparse text, but some readers will be tempted by a different fate. Instead of working to unlock all the novel's secrets, perhaps it's more appropriate to shelve this book away, in the darkest corner of your library, and hope someday to stumble upon it again.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.

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