I don’t know if it’s quite the thing to admit it, but I have a weakness for book mentions. So when a novel is flagged with dust jacket quotes from Nicola Barker, Deborah Levy and Sinead Gleeson, three writers I greatly admire, I’m more inclined to think it might deserve attention, even if I don’t I disagree with their opinion. On this occasion, I do not. Camilla Grudova’s Children Of Paradise is a remarkable and memorable achievement. Combining the gothic, the carnivalesque, the dreadful and the sublime in a relatively slender novel is indeed a considerable skill.
The principle is relatively simple. Holly – alias, young in a new town and country and unemployed – sees a sign that reads “We’re hiring” on the door of a movie theater. “The Paradise Cinema had a garish interior and a pervasive smell of sweet popcorn and mold,” the opening sentence reads. Its unique screen has plaster casts of “couples kissing, perhaps not quite human, with long pointed ears and horns, and stars like unrecognizable constellations on the ceiling. It also has a hatch in a functional sewer below them.The discerning reader, given the presence of this Stygian river, the distant stars – not to mention the name of the cinema – might expect there to be a heavy element of allegory in all of this.
There is and there isn’t, because it’s also, realistically, a failing business and not even shabby chic. Sally, the beturbaned manager who says she was once a beauty queen, gives Holly a job as an usher. Then we get the rest of the cast, a compilation of cranks and eccentrics, who are variously picky, obsessive, idle, thieving, nostalgic and drugged, plus the elderly landlady with her own romantic history. Rather than just being a gallop through variously offbeat characters, the novel requires an alter engine. This happens when the owner dies and the family sells Paradise to a corporate giant. There is an enemy now, beyond the cast’s ability to self-sabotage.
One extremely noteworthy aspect is the depiction of professional life, both in the original half-haunted paradise and its commitment to “classic movies” as well as profitable blockbusters and in the latter part slick, heartless and micro- managed. Work is often not really part of the novels, with a few notable and important exceptions. Grudova imparts an almost rapid distaste for menial tasks: not just spilled popcorn, but syringes, stains, visceral descriptions of toilets and their many unsanitary purposes, theft and the like. When it turns into CCTV trained on staff not customers, pusillanimous demands and a new boss who looks like a CGI version of a human, it gets darker.
There’s a clever structural “necessary quirk” to the book, in that each chapter is preceded by a movie title, director, and release date. As a book set in a cinema, it will already appeal to those who love cinema, but it works as a device because the reader must guess the connection between the title and the action of the plot. Sometimes it’s obvious – The Seven Samurai of Kurosawa as we assemble the rest of the directors, or Aldritch’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane as an introduction to the bewildered and demanding owner. Others are more oblique, and of course that helps if you’ve seen the movies. There are 22, I’ve seen 13. But getting a program wrapped up in such a clever and provocative novel doesn’t strike me as a bad thing (and there are plenty more movies referenced in the text).
The emotional keystone is how the cinema’s staff of “fundamentally unemployable freaks” develop an esprit de corps. Cinema is what unites them. It’s clever to balance the magic lantern of the screen, that veil to another reality, with Holly’s feeling that “she looked too boring to work in the movies”. The desire for glamour, a sense that the old is decidedly better than the mundane, is kind of a keynote. The gothic tone is supported by these lost individuals working in the dark, surrounded by the moving but non-living forms of dead actors and actresses, seeing everything in snatches except during illicit afterworks. If there’s a symbolic element to the novel, perhaps it’s that these low-paid, emotionally confused and insecure people could be in purgatory, or more ominously, limbo.
It’s difficult to convey the unique atmosphere of this novel because much of it is evoked by the juxtaposition and gradual drip of references. In addition to endorsements, it’s always worth checking out the author’s biography; here it opens “Camilla Grudova lives in Edinburgh where she works as a bailiff.” I really, really hope that a good percentage of Children Of Paradise is fiction and not report. I am not afraid.
Children of Paradise, by Camilla Grudova, Atlantic Books, £14.99