The gap between understanding horror and actually expressing it is the text of Jesse Ball’s second novel. The Curfew is a funhouse mirror of a book that refracts a terrifying police state through one of its youngest inhabitants. Her break from routine causes her such intense pain, even the author seems to consider himself unequal to the problem of expressing it.
The 8-year-old in question, Molly, lives with her father William, a former well-known concert violinist in a city operating under a nightly curfew. The police, whose secret headquarters are constantly being burned down as the citizens’ boldest gesture of civil disobedience, have taken Molly’s mother Louisa, and while her death hasn’t been certified, Molly knows she isn’t coming back. Still, the culture of death and suspicion has been a boon to William in his second career, as an epitaph writer crafting the anger of the grieving into subversive statements that won’t arouse official suspicion. Still, his yearning to do more leads him to reunite with some of his old political friends, leaving Molly overnight in the care of an elderly neighbor whose chosen art, puppeteering, has also been denounced by the state.
Like a poet, Ball uses the negative space of the page to construct the vast unspoken state of paranoia William falls into after his wife’s disappearance. Coupled with the fact that Molly is mute—though able to communicate through sign language—Ball literalizes their plight on the page, and it initially works beautifully. Between the blanks Molly can’t fill in and those William doesn’t want to, Ball artfully underdescribes enough to lock the characters into a maze, where they’re trapped by the danger that any public action will be considered offense enough to have them removed.
But Ball’s approach falters when the police state intervenes on William and Molly’s bubble. As Molly and her neighbor attempt to recreate her world on the puppet stage, The Curfew chooses its neat fable of creation over grappling with her messy anguish. It’s meant to be moving beyond words, but it ultimately rejects those words as ineffectual, and the emotional narrative is lost in the handoff. Reduced to a string of dioramic images, The Curfew’s final pages are artful but unconnected to the novel’s initial narrative promise that it will present the truth of the violence uniting the residents of the city.