I was immediately intrigued by Lindsey Drager’s novella, The Lost Daughter Collective. Throughout, bedtime stories told to young girls are used as cautionary tales; each, like a fairytale, starts off in rather a beguiling and sweet manner, but soon the sinister begins to creep in.
The main narrative, which in its first half introduces us to a five-year-old girl and her father, is interspersed with the smaller ‘bedtime’ stories, all of which add a lot to the whole. This approach to structure is simple yet clever, and works incredibly well. We do not learn the girl’s name, but learn about her through her thoughts, fears, and dreams.
Grief is one of the mainstays of the novella, in all its many forms. The Lost Daughter Collective of the title is a group for bereaved fathers, who have lost their daughters either to death, or to life. The collective ‘gathers on the top floor of an abandoned umbrella factory in the downtown of a mid-sized city. The group is composed of men who meet weekly to harness their mourning, a delicate practice best not undertaken alone.’ The fathers, different as they are, have decided that the best way to meet is to categorise their daughters into two distinct groups; there are the Dorothys, who are dead, and the Alices, who are missing. ‘Qualifying their lost girls in this way,’ writes Drager, ‘is a silently endorsed coping mechanism. When a new father arrives, no one need articulate the method of daughter-exit from his life. The others can tell whether he is the victim of a Dorothy or an Alice by the new father’s posture and gait. Father sorrow is best read through the mobile body.’
I loved the stylish fairytale feel which the prose had, and the fact that all of the characters, for the first half of the book, are unnamed; instead, they go by their job titles. The father of our unnamed young protagonist is known as the ‘Wrist Scholar’ for instance, working as he is upon that almost unidentifiable space between hand and arm. The themes which Drager has woven in are rather dark on the whole, and her clever ideas have such a power to them. There is an awful lot to think about and mull over in The Lost Daughter Collective. There are interesting twists which cause one to consider exactly what loss is, and whether one can truly overcome it.
Drager manages to be both charming and unsettling in her prose and storyline, and strikes a balance between the two marvellously. She uses familiar stories and tropes – for instance, using ‘Dorothy’ of The Wizard of Oz, and Alice of Lewis Carroll’s books – and sometimes simplistic, fairytale-esque prose, in which she fits all of the separate stories. Really, though, Drager makes them all her own; there is little similarity here between other books which have at least a partial basis in fairytale. Drager also cleverly weaves in semi-autobiographical stories which feature the likes of Virginia Woolf, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Mary Shelley, which are wonderful to behold.
There is no predictability here, and whilst similar structures have been used, and parallels can be drawn, the ideas are all Drager’s own. The Lost Daughter Collective is at once familiar and fresh, and uses artful repetition at junctures; it is as beautifully written as it is startlingly profound. It is short enough to be read in a single sitting, but its depth of ideas and prose will linger long afterwards. The Lost Daughter Collective is quite unlike anything I’ve read in ages, with its reimagined and reshaped stories, and its original approach. It is a real gem of a book, both enchanting and entrancing.