Keith Donahue’s previous novel, The Boy Who Drew Monsters, was a huge hit because of its focus on a quaint New England setting and an intimate cast of characters, and also because it was often unyieldingly scary. Donahue’s newest novel The Motion of Puppets adopts a well-worn horror trope – the danger of living puppets – and strikes out in a new direction, again hoping to spin a deeply personal story about two spouses separated from each other by distance and magic who go to great lengths to find each other. While Donahue’s novel is slight on scares, his passion for the project – deep research, a continual theme of motion, movement, and photographic history – is evident, along with an apparent fascination with the Orpheus and Eurydice myth upon which The Motion of Puppets is based.
Donahue divides his chapters into dual narratives after his main characters, Theo and Kay, are separated from each other. It’s a great decision to craft two storylines out of these missing lovers: Theo, a French translator working on a manuscript by Eadweard Muybridge, goes through the stages of grief after Kay mysteriously disappears after a late night out with her ballet troupe; Kay, a free-spirited young woman, becomes a puppet at the hands of mystical puppeteers and adventures with them as she goes through multiple body changes. The Motion of Puppets is a work about the journey, about two individuals lost from each other – more obviously in space, but sometimes in emotion as well – and the distance one will go to close that gap.
The problem lies in Donahue’s rigid middle plotting, which often belabors the point: Theo has no leads to search, Kay has no possible avenues to get escape her puppet-hoarding captors, and The Motion of Puppets stagnates as the characters continue to become increasingly more ambivalent about their fates. That’s not to say that the novel doesn’t have its strong moments, and in fact Donahue includes a lot of strong thematic elements to the book including elements of motion (both puppet, human, and photographic), heavy character development between both leads even when they’re separated, and an exploration of puppet life that mimics God’s lordship over humanity.
It’s just that The Motion of Puppets drags for too long before getting to the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, that archetype of traveling through Hell to get back a loved one. In the end, Donahue’s dark conclusion is worth the reader’s own efforts to wade through a rather lackluster second act, but it’s easy to see some putting the book away before getting to the climax.
That follow-through, though, is surprisingly agile despite the book’s slower pace, and Donahue manages to entertain and impress with his version of the underworld in puppet form. The Motion of Puppets concludes with a tragic but also hopeful undertone, influenced by alternate versions of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. Here, Donahue is able to have it both ways, and it reads as a fitting tribute to that age-old tale.
While The Motion of Puppets isn’t as strong as Donahue’s previous novel, it’s a compelling piece of fiction provided readers can get through a glacially-paced third of the book. The conclusion is worth it, and the novel’s relatively short length – just under 300 pages, though densely packed – should encourage wary readers to carry on as Theo does in the story. A working knowledge of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth comes in handy too – but ultimately, the motion of Donahue’s character-driven drama will either drive the reader through, or away from, the novel.