Reviewed by Emily Walker
Alright, full disclosure:
Lidia Yuknavitch was my composition professor when I was seventeen and going to community college. She wrote me a rather hyperbolic reference letter to get me into my undergraduate degree, when I transferred to the University of British Columbia. All that aside, I haven’t seen her in about eight years, but Yuknavitch’s literary stock has risen exponentially in that time. She released her unflinching memoir, The Chronology of Water, which broadened her appeal outside of Oregon due to stellar reviews from Stephen Elliott’s pet-project, The Rumpus, and constant promotion by Chuck Palahniuk on his recent book tours.
Yuknavitch returns to her fiction roots with Dora: a Headcase, a gritty novel based on Sigmund Freud’s case study of Ida Bauer, aka: Dora. Yuknavitch revamps the case study through Ida’s snappy, critical, sharp eyes and sets it in the present, in gray and rainy Seattle. Ida engages in “art attacks” with her gang of fellow abused, mistreated and marginalized teenage friends (including her secret love, Obsidian) for amusement. But as Ida gets closer to love and emotion, she begins to faint or lose her voice. As Ida’s interest in art grows, she hatches a plan to make an experimental art film, targeting her therapist (Siggy or Sig, as she calls him) as the unwilling star. But Ida’s suffers another traumatic incident as she is filming, loses her voice, and finds herself on the run from everyone.
Dora: a Headcase deals with what the definition of what family really is, as Ida finds solace and comfort in her teenage friends and Marlene (a transgender Rwandan, who works for the TSA, and takes the shattered Ida under her wing), while her mother finds solace in Xanax and her father in another woman. But the crux of the novel’s theme arises when Ida thinks about what she wishes she had told her therapist:
“Next time you work with a female? Ask her which her body is. Or ocean. Give her poetry books written by women. Like Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton and H.D. and Adrienne Rich and Mary Oliver and Emily Dickinson. Let her draw or paint or sing a self before. You. Say. A. Word.”
Ida’s voice and point of view is what really drives the fast-paced action in this novel forward. Ida (or Dora) is not just your run of the mill screwed up teenage girl; she’s unique and her problems are real, just like they were when we were our own version of her. Yuknavitch does an extraordinary job of reminding us of that.