The third novel from Jesse Ball, a poet-turned-novelist with a penchant for stunning complexity, hones in on an ostensibly simple but marvelously gripping tale about a violin-virtuoso-turned-epitaph-scribe named William and his mute but precocious daughter, Molly. The Curfew is set in a vaguely dystopian city where creativity has been prohibited and a shadowy war rages. We meet William and Molly as they're struggling to stay below the sinister regime's radar after Molly's mother, Louisa, disappears.
When William goes out past the titular curfew, possibly to join the fomenting rebellion, Molly and the retired puppeteer who lives across the hall craft an insomniously imaginative marionette play that layers another, even more allegorical metafiction atop the minimalist plot, one taken up with the same survivalist sense-making and memorializing as William's elegiac gravestone poetry. At one point, Molly instructs the old puppeteer with notes on paper: "There will be no magic, whatsoever. Magic is either a poverty-stricken necessity or a wealthy fantasy. We are in neither of those straits, and what cannot be explained will be left unknown." This is clearly more than a little girl's preference; it is also a treatise on magic realism and its metaphysical diversions. In The Curfew, at least, fiction, imagination, and old-fashioned storytelling—as coping mechanisms and catalysts for hope—are magical and mysterious enough.
Ball's poetic proclivities are on display throughout his prose. The novel is arranged in short vignettes, deploying linguistic and typographic playfulness, and each page brims with enchantment. Molly is a font of wide-eyed but sophisticated profundity, putting forth such ruminations as "What remains of a tree in a violin?" Throughout, Ball eschews preciousness in favor of mythical whimsy in league with Calvino or Erickson or Ball's clearest antecedent, Borges.
In the end, The Curfew is a spellbinding and wistful meditation on familial love, sacrifice, the exigency of imagination, and the honoring of those lost. It's a book that leaves the heart both wrenched and warm.