‘Under the Poppy’ by Kathe Koja

Daringly provocative and entertainingly risque, Under the Poppy (Small Beer Press), the latest from multiple award-winning novelist Kathe Koja, is a two-act novel set in the 1870s, first in an unspecified Victorian-era city and later in Brussels and a number of cities across Western Europe.

Koja weaves a thrilling tale of love, deception, death and war while developing each character so artfully that readers will remember their stories long after finishing the last page.

Koja has been known for her acclaimed young adult novels like Talk, a book previously reviewed by Lambda Literary, which tells the story of how one gay student comes to terms with his identity over the course of participating in a controversial school play. However, she departs from the young adult genre to explore adult themes of sex, lust and betrayal.

She slowly pieces together an intricate love triangle among the leaders of Under the Poppy, a brothel that offers much more than burlesque. While the ladies of the high-end gentleman’s club doll themselves up in elaborate yet minimal attire and act out sex scenes onstage, the joint’s owner entertains himself with more masculine pleasures.

Rupert, a quietly powerful charmer who heads the lustful place, and Istvan, a talented and handsome puppeteer, explore their age-old affections against the backdrop of Victorian sensibilities, an impending war and the jealous mistress of the house who carries her own feelings for Rupert.

As the town falls apart under the well-meaning yet ineffective mayor, the inhabitants of Under the Poppy grow cold, hungry and increasingly terrified. All the while, the romance between the two great talents of the house only intensifies into a fiery passion that can be stopped neither by the taunts of unruly and masochistic soldiers nor the bitter tactics of house mistress Decca.

The passion only heightens as the story progresses, as displayed in the increasingly intimate moments between the two lovers.

‘What do you want,’ shaking and helpless, now, as a puppet unstrung, all the old love rising up unstoppable as war, as the moon rolling cold above them, as the dawn on the cusp of that moon and Rupert says it again, he whispers, ‘What do you want of me,’ but it is not a question and there is only one answer, given mouth to mouth, breath to breath…one body to another in the all-consuming dark.

When Istvan begs Rupert to flee the brothel and join him on the road, a life of which they are both all too familiar with, the latter is torn between his obligations to the house’s loyal workers and an intense love that has wounded him in the past.

Koja delves into her characters’ chilling pasts with a kind yet revealing touch, exposing even the impatient, unruly, and bitter Decca as sympathetically human.

Koja takes many risks in this novel, from the blunt sexual undertones and colorful descriptions of sex acts to the inclusion throughout of Istvan’s mischievous puppets.

From the excitingly naughty trailer featured on Lambda Literary before the novel’s release to the detailed descriptions of intimate encounters throughout the novel itself, Koja’s latest can be considered a (very) guilty pleasure. Surprisingly, each element adds suspense, creativity and amusement to an already inventive Victorian-era forbidden romance between two men, making this novel enjoyable from start to finish.

Though Koja’s vivid descriptions of Victorian styles and customs are well-researched and on target, this novel is by no means meant to represent a historical picture of Western Europe.

While Koja displays her artistic talent in her images of the streets of poverty-stricken European cities, where prostitutes compete for sex deprived men and dirty orphans scrounge for pennies and bits of moldy bread, the tale’s central focus is on developing the romance between Istvan and Rupert.

Koja’s latest novel stands in contrast to works by queer historical fiction authors like Sarah Waters that involve fact-based settings. Instead, Koja’s concern lies in romance rather than history. The central elements of her tale involve personal stories that aid in character development and entertaining descriptions of brothel life.

Historical details aside, all the elements of a great novel are present in Koja’s work: from suspense and intrigue to undying love and toxic jealousies, this highly developed read is brimming with imaginative flair and originality.
by Kathe Koja
Small Beer Press
Trade Paperback, 9781931520706, 376pp.