Hélène

Deborah Poe’s 19th century heroine Hélène finds herself in the elaborate trap of a ‘factory-convent,’ manufacturing silk in western France—and her only release is the fantasy of producing it, instead, in China. Poe handles the implications and associations of these very different worlds with wrenching clarity. But finally, it is language—’We all our song within which voice finds its own escape’—that offers the window through which Hélène, and we, effect that escape. Poe’s handling of language throughout the book is nothing less than liberating, and yet it’s also arresting—it’s often, in short, simply breathtaking, while her acrobatically precise and dynamic balance between research and attention allows the reader to be simultaneously transported beyond and riveted to the present. A major accomplishment, and a haunting one.

— Cole Swensen