Book Review

The characters of Kathryn Davis’ The Silk Road read as metaphorical appendages to one body. In a yoga studio called “the labyrinth,” the eight practitioners move through their poses in unison, cautious not to draw the ire of their enigmatic instructor. While rousing from a final, collective meditation, the group encounters a problem: one of the members remains in corpse pose on their mat. The worst is presumed. The fun begins.

It’s hard to overstate the strange beauty of Davis’ eighth novel, which is almost too rich for the premise. The labyrinth is a mere launch pad for the author’s philosophical exploration, inspired by ancient sources such as The Tibetan Book of the Dead and Lucretius, as well as more contemporary muses like the poet Louise Glück. The title references the import of Eastern spirituality to the West, Buddhism being the well Davis draws from. And at 132 pages, The Silk Road is decadence well-portioned.

That opening scene wraps up with someone producing a compact mirror to check the breathing of the stalled yogi. An old drug habit is alluded to, leading the narrator to state that, “Each of us came with a past attached, like a wagon or a bindle or a hump.” Turns out these practitioners, named for such professions as Topologist, Baker, and Archivist, are siblings; they share a common history the way close kin do. As if confined to a bardo-esque purgatory (as one takes the labyrinth to be, keeping especially aware of Davis’ influences), these brothers and sisters conjure their collective past as they attempt to reconcile distant memories—a difficult task as they struggle with the inconsistencies of the reminiscing mind, which colors history in shades of ego and prejudice. Also, this: “When you arrive at the edge of the world you stop remembering things like how you got there. Your attention keeps pouring over the edge, out and away from the footprints left behind you in the snow.” This clash of conflicting recollections provides the tension that pulls readers through bizarre scenes involving mountain train rides taken in their youth; a hospital on a hill; their detached, coquettish mother; a wind-worn grocery bag trapped beneath varying forms of vegetation (the specific type dependent on whoever is recalling it); and, memorably, one sibling’s poet girlfriend who was obsessed with the game Hangman.

The result is a tumble of tales, eight lives spilling in and through and out of each other, an effect like watching laundry jostle through a washing machine porthole. Here we have one sibling sharing a memory of an elementary school assembly where the principal had told a fairy-tale, when another interjects to contest a specific detail. And now this sibling is off on their own origin story, perhaps, or recalling a specific moment when their father punched his fist right through a wall (to be discredited, of course, ten pages later by another’s account). Try a taste:

            The Archivist was Father’s champion, both of them Virgos, not that easy to get along with though delicate, a delicate nature stretched and then suspended above the fathomless abyss.
            We dipped them in butter, said the Cook. Snails are delicious dipped in butter.
            Anything is delicious dipped in butter, said the Botanist.
            When she was a little girl, she used to bring garden slugs in from the backyard and feed them saltines. Remember? That was how it worked, the Geographer said, the kindest acts spawning disastrous outcomes.

It’s a tough sell, turning scenes over and over in such a fashion. Davis switches points of view and settings on the reader just as they’ve found their feet on, say, a rocky beach featuring a shrine with a sacrificed virgin buried underneath (yes, you read that right). The trick is largely accomplished through dialogue, which acts as a transitional lubricant. Also, the occasional line break provides order to the chaos. The result is dizzying, though the narrative remains grounded just enough to keep readers upright.

That such an effect does not detract from reading pleasure is owed largely to Davis’ humor. When encountering the shrine on the beach, one sibling expresses doubt about whether or not the buried teenage girl could be a virgin when, as everyone knows, “Sixteen was all about sex. . . .” In another scene the narrator summarizes their bickering relations in a way that reads familiar to all who have experienced family strife, stating “. . . with the possible exception of the Botanist, we often acted as if none of us had feelings. . . The thing is, though—we did. We loved one another. That was the arrangement.” And then there is the occasional wonkiness, such as the matter of the local prison they’d grown up near. They’d often play where the inmates could see them; their mother would openly express perverse sympathy for incarcerated men.

But more than this is the mounting intrigue throughout. The aforementioned yoga scene is revisited as a murder mystery of sorts, though it’s hard to nail down exactly who is the accused and who their victim might be (the motionless character is never actually named). And then there is the perpetual, seemingly high-stakes race the siblings engage in on a hillside, a challenge that is sometimes presented in medias res, and in other parts is described as yet another childhood memory. As for the prison, one might consider it a stand-in for Chekov’s gun: an eventual jail break invokes hints of traumatic horror involving their mother, who welcomes a fugitive right into their home.

Like the cleverest of designs, it seems impossible that The Silk Road might follow one. Davis replicates the dream state but injects the catechism of inertia, time jumbled yet curated just enough to keep momentum. And this novel has the effect of that dream you’ve awakened from, stunned and bedazzled, your heart in shards for reasons you can almost comprehend. Perhaps the narrator says it best: “Our sense of urgency was strong, even though we didn’t know where we had to be, or when we had to be there.” The Silk Road inspires rare wonderment, as well as the allure of a hard-won understanding almost at hand, a truth that might become apparent in a second read. Or a third.

About the Reviewer

Damien Roos is an MFA candidate in Fiction at The New School, a former editorial fellow at Guernica Magazine and a reader for PANK. His work has appeared in such outlets as New South Journal, The Master's Review and Gravel. He lives in New York City with his wife and blue nose pit bull.