I was a big fan of Camilla Grudova’s collection of stories The Doll’s Alphabet, one of the earlier titles published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, a book that found a place on My Best Books of 2017 list. Children of Paradise is Grudova’s first novel and I thoroughly enjoyed it; it retains many flavours of what made her short story collection so memorable.

Children of Paradise is a lovely, beguiling tale of cinema, flimsy friendships, loneliness and the evils of corporate takeovers.

Our protagonist is a young twenty-something woman called Holly who at the beginning of the first chapter sees a sign outside Paradise cinema advertising that they are looking for recruits. Paradise is one of the oldest cinemas in the city located in a decrepit building and Holly is immediately struck by its appearance…

The Paradise cinema had a gaudy interior and a pervasive smell of sweet popcorn and mildew. It was built on the ground floor of a block of flats around the time of the outbreak of the First World War, its entrance like the building’s gaping mouth, a sparkling marquee teeth grin with the word PARADISE written in pale yellow neon. They tore down some of the flats to put the cinema in. I imagined someone with a giant cake knife cutting out whole living rooms and bedrooms with people in them, and throwing them away, replacing regular, mundane lives with glamorous Hollywood ones.

Holly applies to the post and is subsequently interviewed by the manager of the cinema theatre – a heavily made up woman wearing a vintage dress called Sally. Holly is hired on the spot (“I don’t know why she hired me, but I later learned that Sally had mysterious ways of doing things”), and as Sally shows her the ropes, she (and the reader) are introduced to a slew of characters working behind the scenes at the cinema – the assistant manager Otto who “was aloof, carrying a clipboard, a pen behind one year”;  Patricia and her “large plastic glasses with greasy popcorn fingerprints on them”; Paolo who “looked like a beautiful Roman soldier, covered in jewels he had plundered”; the taciturn Flynn whose “voice became normal and friendly when talking to customers but he never smiled at them”; Flynn’s dad Pete who is the master of the projection room and so on.

In the beginning, the work is arduous, and Holly struggles to the point of tears but holds on. The theater is often grimy laced by dirty plates and cups, half eaten food, wasted drinks, and other paraphernalia strewn across the seats, making her job of scrubbing and cleaning all the more harder.

The carpet of the screen after a show was dirtier than any restaurant floor. There was so much broken glass that everything looked covered in a fine layer of frost. I guess people found an animalistic pleasure in eating and drinking in the dark, in making a mess, leaving bags, boxes and cans behind. Spilled popcorn, contraband glass bottles of wine, champagne and beer that people snuck in, candy bar wrappings, banana peels, strangely heavy Pepsi cups, sunglasses, umbrellas and, occasionally, toenails and semen, feathers even, as if someone had brought a dead chicken to pluck.

It does not help that Holly’s colleagues, a close-knit circle, are initially hostile towards her. Holly does not feel welcome, and she hardly speaks to anybody. In the evenings, after the cinema is finally empty of viewers, Otto and the rest of the cinema gang watch movies on the screen by themselves, a sort of a tradition…but Holly distances herself from these screenings. Wracked by loneliness, Holly seeks refuge in her bleak rented room watching films on TV instead all by herself.

Those first few weeks were unbearably lonely. I’d walk home, in the dark, listening to OMD, New Order or Duran Duran on full blast. I hardly saw any of the city beyond the Paradise and the walk to and from my apartment. It was nothing but a grey blur between the Paradise and my cold bedroom.

However, things one day turn for the better, when Otto invites her to his home for dinner and movies, where the other members are also present, and the ice is finally broken. Holly gradually begins to feel a part of the extended Paradise family as they begin to accept her into their fold.  

But the Paradise staff is living on the edge, in danger of falling into an abyss, and mired in drugs, alcohol, and casual flings burdened as they are by an ambiguous future. The wages are poor, they live on the margins and barely get by, and the camaraderie is the only thing that sustains them but it is precarious.

As the days go by, Holly notices a loud-mouthed old lady introduced to her as Iris who frequently visits Paradise asking for the films being played. Holly tries to avoid her whenever possible, but observes that the rest of the staff indulges her because, she is told, Iris owns the theatre although she is not involved in running it, that responsibility has been entrusted on Sally. Holly’s orders are to cater to Iris’ whims even when they are contrarian to the overall theatre rules.

But then a tragic development occurs, and the fate of Paradise hangs in the balance, the staff has to grapple mounting insecurities, and they struggle to cope.

Loneliness is one of the central themes explored in the novel. We first experience this through Holly who increasingly isolated as a new employee withdraws more and more into herself. But even when she comes out of her shell and makes friends, the dregs of loneliness remain as she relies on the usual suspects to alleviate that aching aloneness – drugs and casual sex.  The rest of the Paradise members are no different, each feeling unmoored in his/her own way, and feel isolated due to their unstable circumstances even when surrounded by people.

Children of Paradise is also a novel of fragile friendships; bonds between friends as delicate as treading on eggshells. The Paradise staff comprises a band of eccentrics and misfits glued together by the lure and love of cinema and because they have an almost non-existent life outside of the theatre. But when faced with the harsh realities of an unforeseen event and the frightening prospect of unemployment, these bonds begin to fray and disintegrate just like the theatre around it.

The book also examines the murky side of capitalism – exploitation of employees, the soullessness of corporate takeovers led by an indifferent profit-hungry management, creativity losing out to commercialism, and how small businesses suffer as a result because when forced into these one-sided partnerships to stay afloat, they lose something of their integrity and uniqueness in the process. A tough tradeoff that can have debilitating consequences.

Grudova’s fascination with dirt, dereliction, and discarded objects is one of the factors that made The Doll’s Alphabet so compelling, and Children of Paradise is also drenched with ample doses of those ingredients.

Whenever I touched the table or moved my feet the entire bar seemed to rattle, the shelves of oddly shaped glasses for obscure cocktails, the dim-coloured liquors, the jar of pickled eggs, olives with tiny red tongues, cornichons and jalapeños floating in foggy water like dead slugs, Luxardo maraschino cherries and dusty peanuts.

In fact, the book’s gothic overtones and preoccupation with dirt also has shades of Angela Carter to it as depicted in the latter’s terrific novel The Magic Toyshop. Grudova has a flair for vivid descriptions which come alive when the object of focus is the gently decaying theatre…

The Paradise was a Frankenstein’s monster of a place. Over the years, rooms were added and rearranged but with all the same old rotting pieces, the same red, white and gold paint retouched, another layer put on.

There was a chandelier in the lobby, red carpeted floors, gold trim on the white walls, wide and narrow mirrors which gave it the feeling of a funhouse though they distracted from the oppression of the flats above – layer upon layer of furniture, crockery and lives.

The structure of the book is in keeping with the book’s cinema theme. Made up of several chapters, what’s striking about them are the headings – each chapter displays a different film title with the name of the director and the year that film was released. In many ways, Children of Paradise is homage to cinema, the reel world versus real life, and how for the book’s characters these realms often merge, the lines between them increasingly blurred.

Surreal and immersive, Children of Paradise effortlessly packs in an array of themes – cinema, capitalism and camaraderie – into its 196 pages, churning out an offering that is truly original in the way it views the world.

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