Book Review: The Motion of Puppets by Keith Donohue

Cover via Goodreads.
Cover via Goodreads.

In Keith Donohue’s modern retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice, The Motion of Puppets, we’re introduced to a range of characters from a besotted husband and his missing wife, to an emotionally unstable puppet girl as the husband embarks on a journey to save his wife from eternity as a doll. For fans of mythology, this sounds like a great read and it is, without a doubt, beautifully written; however, when it comes to execution, the story fell flat.

Theo and Kay Harper are newlyweds with a ten year age difference between them. A teacher at a local college, Theo takes an summer vacation away from New York with his wife, Kay, as she performs with a cirque in Quebec City. While she works, he translates a book from French to English, and everything appears to be fine. That is, until Kay suddenly disappears one night after going out with her fellow actors for dinner and drinks. Woven with necromancy, animated puppets, and many references to the madness of Alice in Wonderland, Donohue’s story could be considered riveting, and perhaps I would gladly label it so if I had not been so profoundly bored while reading it.

The book’s plot is, in and of itself, highly intriguing. As a fan of  horror and having proclaimed a love for anything necromantic in nature, the idea of people becoming puppets, or even dying and being reanimated in any fashion really, is something apt to catch my attention, and for that reason and my love of ancient mythology, I requested an advanced reader’s copy of The Motion of Puppets. My frustration with it came mostly in the fact that I felt like the book progressed too slowly and there seemed to be a lot of extra “fluff” added in. For instance, the snippets regarding Theo’s translation of Eadweard Muybridge’s biography really felt a bit unnecessary. There was no real correlation between Muybridge and the book itself, save to provide Theo with something on which to focus. That, also, didn’t feel necessary, as Theo seems to be a rather detached character, despite his very clear obsession with his wife. Even Kay’s point of view seems to be a bit overly deluded, considering her time as a puppet is significantly shorter than that of the other puppets around her and yet she seems almost as aloof as they are by the conclusion of the book.

In addition to moving at a bit of a slow pace, The Motion of Puppets also seems to rely a bit more on Alice in Wonderland-like elements than it does mythos or current happenings. Everything seems weird and ridiculous, and little, if anything, makes any sense. If you try to make sense of it, chances are you’ll find yourself lost, which I found myself giving up on halfway through the book. Magic is clearly alluded to as being the cause for the current state of the majority of the cast’s existence; however, it is hardly mentioned and never really explained. Clearly there’s enough oddness going on that the nearly-faceless bad guys worry about being found out, but even that isn’t enough of a reason to delve into the why or how: it simply is.

There is no doubt in my mind that Keith Donohue is an excellent writer; he has a beautiful command of language that quite literally takes my breath away. Though The Motion of Puppets failed to satisfy me as a reader, I will likely read more of his work when I have the time. As for the genre of this book, horror probably isn’t the right one. It’d be better suited in fantasy. There’s nothing scary here.

Thank you to Macmillan-Picador, NetGalley, and the author for providing me with an advanced reader’s copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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