THE ART OF FALLING by Kathryn Craft

On December sixth I posted the following on Twitter:

Revisiting the agony and the ecstasy of my modern dance training with THE ART OF FALLING by @kcraftwriter Spot On! #Fridayreads 

Craft, a former dancer, has opened a drawer most dancers keep shut: the one designated to body image. The contents spill out without apology and with an accuracy that makes the reader pause. For readers with dance history, the daily struggle between honoring and abusing the body that Craft focuses on may be too close to home. It was for me. I needed a few weeks distance before I could compose a review.

Before you start thinking The Art of Falling is a literary equivalent of the film Black Swan let me clarify: Kathryn Craft’s debut novel is a story about physical and emotional heartache, delivered with a sensitive hand, from a woman who repeatedly shows us she knows what it means to sail feather-like through space.

My body: a still life, with blankets. 

Is there any more frightening statement than the above for a dancer? This is our introduction to Penny Sparrow, a dancer who is lucky to be alive after a traumatic fall. A great opening and not just for the reader, for our heroine as well. Unable to move, she must decide, right from the first page, how willing she is to face the truth about her past, in order to navigate the present. Her choice to tackle this exploratory journey is not what brings out our empathy for Penny. Craft maneuvers Penny into our hearts by the way she allows Penny to experience the full blown anger and frustration that corresponds with the type of injury she sustains. In this way, Craft makes the most of the advice to writers that says, “Chase your protagonist up a tree and throw stones at them.” The Art of Falling shines as a result.

Novels don’t make it onto the shelves without strong protagonists. But a protagonist’s strength is not always evident to the character, which is why truly skilled writers select their secondary characters carefully. Kathryn Craft soars with her secondary choices. Penny’s best friend Angela has Cystic Fibrosis. A woman frustrated because she may never dance again befriends a woman who struggles daily to live. Now that’s character dynamics.

“So how old are you?”

“Five months past the expiration date stamped on my butt.” She looked at me with a mischievous smile. “I’m twenty-eight.”

Her punch line sobered me: we were the same age. […] With what I knew of CF, Angela could be near the end of her life.

The counterpoint of this duo’s struggle for their individual ideas of life, is at the center of this novel’s composition and one reason The Art of Falling keeps the reader hooked.

Angela isn’t alone in nudging Penny into awakening. All the secondary characters take a shot. They push into and crack the walls she puts up until she has no other choice than to let the festering emotions out, as she does with her mother.

“Because YOU-ARE-FAT!” I want to smack her with this proclamation and all of its implications: that I no longer could witness this long slow death. That she should care more about herself. That she’d been a crappy role model and an embarrassment. That I hated my body because I feared its similarities to hers.

There are many interactions like this where Penny is maneuvered into self-realization. Each one of these moments is crucial to her evolution, and the order in which they unfold has an inevitable flow. However, sometimes her self-awareness was so insightful it prevented me from worrying about her. I don’t believe I ever considered she might fail.

Perhaps it appeared to the others that riding up front by Dimitri’s side gave me an unfair advantage. An added layer of job security. And it was a more comfortable ride, while it lasted. But didn’t they know the survivors in a plane wreck are usually found near the tail? 

On the other hand, to be a dancer demands a level of awareness that escapes the average person. Every second a dancer is in motion, they must simultaneously know exactly what their body is doing, and be capable of escaping the technical aspects so they can embrace the complexity of emotion the dance was designed to illuminate.

This ability to express the inexpressible through the slightest movement of the body is why we are drawn to Dance. It is also another reason The Art of Falling is a compelling read. Kathryn Craft has found a way to transfer her talent as a dancer to the page. Doing so, she is able to communicate the essence of what would normally be unexplainable with a powerful beauty.

A wisp of memory, a trace of the movement I had loved, that imagined kiss: something hibernating in the darkness within me awoke and reached tentatively for the sun. The fierce beauty of it stilled my step. 

The Art of Falling, a story of the dance we know as life.