It’s hard to read Joanna Ruocco’s latest book, a pair of novellas, without thinking of Dick and Jane. “Spit, I say to Spot,” her first novella’s narrator says to a child, and later, “There is piss in the paint.” The contrast between storybook singsong and crude bodily functions is just one of the many bizarre collisions Ruocco orchestrates in her diptych, Another Governess and The Least Blacksmith. Pairing tropes of nineteenth-century governess novels with those of boy’s adventure fiction, Ruocco’s latest is as much an exercise in genre-bending as it is a linguistic experiment. It’s Jane Eyre meets the Hardy Boys, and the result is both chilling and bracing. In Another Governess, Ruocco uses a tale of stolen identity, violence, and physical abuse to show her reader what would have happened had Jane Eyre never left Thornfield. Trapped inside a decaying manor, Ruocco’s narrator must navigate spreading putrefaction and her new position as governess. In The Least Blacksmith, two brothers struggle toward unattainable ideals—running the family smithy, being men—in a town by a bay, not unlike the Hardy Boys’s hometown of Bayport. Those familiar with the Hardy Boys will recall that the boys’ father, Fenton, was a detective, albeit one frequently outshone by his precocious sons. Ruocco’s brothers don’t fare as well against a foreign capitalist encroach on their home, and their father’s business begins to fail.
There is a sense of folding here, both in the concept of a traditional diptych and in the way Ruocco collects elements of disparate genres and forces them together. Her use of language is unquestionably literary, but her subject matter borrows as much from genre fiction as it does canon, resulting in a reading experience that is equal parts entertainment and artistic engagement.
Ruocco’s novellas don’t exist in our world, but rather a place she herself describes as “oblique to it”; close enough to be familiar, yet still mysterious (see Ruocco interview on following page). The mystery comes from how Ruocco shapes setting through language. Another Governess and The Least Blacksmith are spare to the extreme, so Ruocco constructs her world through a carefully chosen vocabulary. She eschews description, instead letting nouns and verbs do the work. In Another Governess, the brickmaker’s daughter lives near a beck, not a stream. The manor is filled not with mud or excrement, but offal. The blacksmith’s younger brother isn’t his apprentice, but rather his striker. Basic nouns appear in both novellas, and their emotional resonance telegraphs across the two stories like the hinges of a physical diptych. “Fluids” refers at one point to urine stains in carpet. Later, it describes tears. Both evoke a bodily loss: the physical demands society makes of us. The imagined world of these novellas is a harsh one—the titular governess subsists solely on rotten cakes, and the only kindness bestowed upon the blacksmith brothers comes from an incestuous relationship.
At the heart of Another Governess and The Least Blacksmith is the parsing of dichotomies— male and female, rich and poor, oppressed and free. Stark language brings to the foreground the violence inherent in how we police gender roles. Both governess and blacksmith suffer abuse as a result of their station, a sort of punishment for deviancy. The governess flounders in her attempts to educate the children of the manor, while the brothers of The Least Blacksmith forgo marriage in favor of a sexual relationship with each other. Despite the violence of the world around them, however, Ruocco’s characters are far from hapless, and it ultimately is their insistence on self-definition that motivates both story and reader. Ruocco’s affinity for genre fiction lends Another Governess and The Least Blacksmith an earnestness often missing in experimental fiction. The reality her characters engage with may be distinct from our own, with its own set of rules, but their troubles couldn’t be more real. That Joanna Ruocco is able to meld material as diverse...