Upon reading SILK by Caitlin R. Kiernan:

Why the R.? What’s the importance behind that initial? Why not the simple, straightforward, expected Caitlin Kiernan? Strange insistence, of some import to the author that escapes me. A question of identity, an insistence on a demure formality that defies convention.

SILK. The title, given the book, is understandable. No mystery here. Silk, the silk of webs, the tug and pull of something trapped, seeking to free itself. 353 pages. Published in 1998. The year I graduated from high school. Orlando heat, synthetic red robes, droning formalities in the gymnasium. And Caitlin R. Kiernan in Birmingham, Alabama, putting the finishing touches on her novel before sending it out to ROC. Her first novel. What hopes had ridden along with it, what dreams and desires, and have they been borne out? Looking back now, 9 years since, what does she think?

The book was slow going. One hundred pages in and the plot had not yet (I felt, in all my modest authority) kicked into gear. Characters were still being fleshed out, growing heavy and complex and ripe on the page. One hundred pages detailing and explaining and exploring and setting pieces into play. Teasing out back story, connecting threads, describing the streets and shops and desolate spaces in which the characters lived out their lives. It is a testament to Caitlin R. Kiernan’s skill that I read through those pages while still waiting for something to happen, sufficiently intrigued by her line up so as to keep going, waiting for events to be put in motion.

Though in retrospect, the act of lining them up and describing their faults and feelings, their loves and losses was what made what followed powerful. It’s a subtle story, carried by nuance and innuendo, by careful psychology and a keen understanding of the frailties of the human heart. Of how cruelty can warp the soul, and how love can batter itself near to death in doomed attempts to redeem those who can only redeem themselves.

Her language: powerful, detailed, visual, rich, rich almost to the point of decadence. An ability to zoom in, and then zoom in again. Lush, bruised and purple like a rotting rose, but not overly so to the point of nausea (though it came close at a few points in the beginning). The sheer fierceness of her prose carries you along, propels you, and before you know it you’re hooked, turning the pages and dreading the next permutation. There was a distinct point (about 2/3rds through) when I understood certain implications, and felt unease, if not dread, as to what was going to befall the characters. That’s good writing.

The ending: not overly satisfying. As if she had imagined with perfect clarity the cast and the downward spiral, but had not been 100% sure as to where she was going to take it till she got there. Either I am obtuse and didn’t understand the explanations to certain key questions, or they weren’t answered to my satisfaction, and I was left hanging, unsure as to what to think, understand.

But what makes this story work, what winds it tight and hooks you in is Kiernan’s sharp, precise understanding of her characters, of the subculture they live in, of what motivates them, what propels them, what drags them down. She is able to breath life into them, make them real, and in so doing the reader has no choice but to become involved, to watch helplessly as the darkness creeps in from the corners and they begin to cry and scream.

SILK, by Caitlin R. Kiernan: a powerful, difficult novel that builds with slow, unstoppable force, harrows and chills you and pulls you in but doesn’t quite deliver the goods at the very end. Her first novel, mind you, so pretty fucking brilliant for all that.