Isadora by Amelia Gray
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017; 400 pp
Reviewed by Bobby Fischer
Amelia Gray moves into historical fiction with an account of the famous early twentieth century dancer, Isadora Duncan, in her novel Isadora. In rendering real people and events, Gray loses nothing of the absurdism and sharp edged language of her previous work. Instead, she uses the life, art, and tragedies of the great dancer to shape a commentary on the body and how we handle grief and process the world not only through genius and sacrifice, but through proximity to genius and sacrifice. This portrait is especially meaningful in that it focuses on a powerful woman in a time when the world did its best to crush powerful women, which when stated as such robs the novel of historical specificity. After all, when did such a time not exist.
The book starts with the tragic deaths of Duncan’s young children and moves forward through her life for the next number of years, detailing her relationships to the people around her, her body and her art. It’s about control. People try to police Duncan’s reaction to the traumatic event and put it into the context of a grief wounded mother. But it’s also about Duncan’s control over her own body, which is her tool and ultimately her existence and her method of resistance against this control. This book is beautiful and there are moments when you feel so close to Duncan, even as she appears so alien in her total resilience and self-determination, that it will bust you open and make you cheer alternately; you will be hurt by others’ attempts to shape her but be revitalized by her refusal to be shaped. This is Amelia Gray’s best work so far and points a fascinating arrow into the future.