Review: Carmilla Voiez's The Ballerina and the Revolutionary
Here at Houston Press we've followed the rise of Carmilla Voiez and her brand of dark, gothic, and sensual horror ever since her first novel Starblood debuted. Since the end of that trilogy of magical massacres she's moved on to less spectral, but no less sinister subjects. The Ballerina and the Revolutionary is by far the best Voiez has yet done.
It's the story of a young, gender-queer woman born Giselle but who now goes by the name Crow. She fled her mentally ill mother's home when she was 13, and now lives in London squatting with anarchists and taking every opportunity to clash with the police in the name of a cause. Suddenly, her brother shows up in her life and brings her home to see their mother on her deathbed, and Crow is forced to return to a house that may be haunted by more than memories.
The novel represents a bold new style of Voiez. In the Starblood trilogy her characters tended towards an obsession to the carnal and physical that often left them slaves to their own desires. By contrast Crow is a near-asexual presence that holds off physicality at arms length with an armor of razor shop emotional quills. She finds her definition in opposition, her pleasure in the pain of cutting her arm or the slam of a riot cop's shield against her head. She'd make a terrific villain if she wasn't in so tragic a set of circumstances.
At its heart Ballerina is a haunted house story. Crow's mother Vivienne's house is a hug empty presence, filled with nice things that are stained with hidden atrocities. Crow finds herself beset with visions. Some of them are kindly memories of gardening with her Nana, but others are terrible recollections of her mother's trouble teenage years. These visions are more than images, though. Crow ends up fighting for her life as specters try to drown her and assail her at every opportunity.
What makes it brilliant is that it's impossible to tell if these manifestations are the product of Crow's battered psyche, a sign that she may have inherited her mother's madness, or actual vengeful shades. Magic is present in the book at every turn, but it's just as easy to wave it away as hypnosis and hysteria.
"It was my intent to blur all the boundaries between reality, dreams and the supernatural," said Voiez via email. "Crow is afraid that Vivienne's schizophrenia has been passed down so at every point ze (nice gender-neutral pronoun) questions whether what ze sees and feels is simply a symptom of insanity. Crow's greatest fear is becoming her mother."
Though she's been brutal in the past I never would have really called Voiez's work scary. I certainly never checked under my bed after reading her books. Ballerina, though, has many, many moments where you feel doors opening up to dark places that are always near because they are inside us.
It's honestly as if Joe Hill had written the script for Beyond: Two Souls. Crow exists not only as herself, brave and broken and defiant, but as a living wound in the world that strange things flow through. She's an infected gash that's being drawn toward antibiotics like a junkie towards heroin. That's what honestly makes the novel difficult to put down. The mark of a great character is that they burn right off the page, and Crow is like a flamethrower. Voiez truly captured fire in a bottle this time around.