Book review – The Secret Box

Book – The Secret Box: Stories by Daina Tabūna. First published by Mansards in Riga, Latvia, 2014. The Emma Press, Birmingham, UK: 2017

This review was first posted on the Mslexia Max Forum

Author Daina Tabūna (born in Riga, Latvia in 1985) has an innate skill in communicating voice to the reader. All three stories in The Secret Box seem to spring from some truth or experience in the author’s life, from which she spins out a narrative with a viewpoint that is seamlessly consistent and vibrantly alive.

The first story, Deals with God, is from the perspective of a young girl on the cusp of her teens who gradually becomes besotted with the idea of Jesus. However, she is confounded when, travelling on the tram back from school, she comes across a man with one arm. He turns the air blue with his profanities, and all her altruistic plans to convert those around her come to nothing as she hurries to alight at the next stop. Then, the girl spots a Coca-Cola advert which exhorts ‘Enjoy’, and decides to take up this advice in place of her late Baba’s instruction that inspired her original religious zeal.

In the second story, The Secret Box, a game of cut-out and colour paper dolls, with tabs to permit changes of outfit and accessory, generates a secret, hidden bond between a brother and sister. Again the point of view is personal, tight, close, as we follow the siblings to the brink of adulthood, through experiences of intense emotion, humiliation, and realisation.

Finally, in The Spleen, My Favourite Organ, a disorientated, strung-out young woman meets a taciturn young office worker. They begin a doomed relationship of sorts, but, like her, he is ‘trapped in some sort of room of his past, from which he couldn’t break out’.

First published in Latvia as part of the prize-winning Pirmā reize (Mansards, 2014), this collection is translated by Jayde Will, illustrated with striking woodblock prints by Mark Andrew Webber, and edited by Emma Wright, who founded the Emma Press in 2012. The Emma Press is ‘dedicated to producing beautiful, thought-provoking books’. This collection certainly fulfils that brief, and the Emma Press is well worth checking out.

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