Kio Stark has It – that exceedingly rare narrative voice that is so refreshingly unique, so addictively immersive, that it literally compels readers to stay up until the wee hours of morning with their bloodshot eyes glued to a book that is impossible to put down. (I’ve been a book reviewer for almost 20 years now and I’ve run across very few writers with It: Cormac McCarthy, Blake Butler, Michael Cisco, etc.)
Lucy is the proverbial outsider, a woman who moved to New York City, it seems, to escape herself and become invisible. She is a proofreader for a law firm – she “hunts for mistakes” – and in her free time she wanders the streets of her neighborhood taking pictures with an old camera. She is almost a detached observer of her own life – with no strings attached to anyone or anything. She has no friends – only a few acquaintances – she has a lover that she doesn’t love, she never takes pictures of people, only inanimate objects: “This is about a world without people at all… these are the ruins we leave behind. The foolish pride of our skyscrapers and our factories, left empty and grown over with weeds.”
But when she finds a letter postmarked in 1978 in her mailbox – addressed to Hombre Cinco – a battered envelope that has somehow managed to survive somewhere for decades, she becomes obsessed with the letter that is in some ways the antithesis of her impermanent photos and her existence in a temporary and disposable world. After she eventually decides to open it – and finds a photograph of a man inside with an enigmatic statement scrawled on the back – she becomes entangled in a mystery that has been left unsolved for decades… for good reason.
Kio Stark is a fanatical observer, a deep thinker, a meticulous wordsmith, and her narrative at points reads like poetic contemplation – vividly descriptive, with powerful images and sublime atmospherics:
“On Sundays the whole neighborhood sleeps late. There must have been rain at dawn, for now the streets and the trees have taken on the darker hue and shimmer that the water leaves on their surfaces as it evaporates back into the sky. All the colors are rich and saturated, the peeling bark of the birches, the green weeds, the mangled red tricycle that sits on the curb awaiting the trashmen’s visit. I spool a roll of film into one of my old plastic toy cameras. It’s light and imprecise. My cameras are a good excuse to see the neighborhood, to stop and stare. The camera opens a space for that, and people always ask what I’m doing. They are puzzled, by the antiquated equipment and the things they see me shooting: the buildings and the places where the buildings used to be. The surface of the canal, lambent with marbled oil. The trees and weeds overtaking the things man has left in his wake.”
There were dozens of sequences in Follow Me Down that struck me as deeply philosophical. It added yet another layer to the already richly tapestried narrative. Here are just a few examples:
• “Display a thing and it becomes invisible.”
• “There is no real medicine for shame.”
• “Promises are anchors…”
• “What’s imperfect is beautiful. What’s imperfect is alive.”
• “A secret isn’t a secret until someone knows it’s there.”
• “There’s something so perfect about a man you won’t ever meet.”
• “Obsession is a kind of medicine, isn’t it?”
Follow Me Down isn’t a conventional read. It’s like taking in a complex work of art – the colors, the textures, the lines, the tones. The experience doesn’t end when the last page is read but continues on for hours, days, weeks, afterward.
Kio Stark is an artist who paints with words – and Follow Me Down is a haunting little masterwork.
Paul Goat Allen has been a full-time book reviewer specializing in genre fiction for the last two decades and has written thousands of reviews for companies like Publishers Weekly, The Chicago Tribune, Kirkus Reviews, and BarnesandNoble.com. In his free time, he reads.
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