Falling is like Flying
Revenge, healing and hope in a real-life fairy tale about incest
‘Reader, I didn’t want to tell this story,’ begins Manon Uphoff’s fourth novel. That angry women are often dismissed as vile, crazy, hysterical is precisely the starting point for this book about a father who sexually abuses his four daughters from early childhood, based on the author’s own experiences.
As befits a fairy tale, the story begins in a forest, where the writer retreats with her husband Oleg to try to diffuse the crisis in their relationship. Layer by layer, with anecdotes and atmospheric portraits, Uphoff constructs the hall of mirrors of her youth. She takes us back to a house full of children — her half-sisters, brothers, little sister Libby and herself (as MM or ‘the undersigned’).
Father is a lover of Baudelaire, music and art who attended an elite high school and went on to seminary. During the day, he goes to work, and at home he plays the artist. On his ‘sorcerer’s stage’, he raises the children: he bathes them, feeds them, keeps track of his daughters’ menstrual cycles and reads their secret diaries. They belong to him. Only MM, who endures the pain of penetration so as not to lose the love of her ‘god the father’, is allowed into his world of art and enlightenment. Mother, a working-class woman, sits in her ‘nicotine palace’ like a smoking ice queen.
Falling is like Flying is an exceptionally refined novel, full of sounds, smells and detail. Highly personal and intimate, it is as intense as the work of Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf. Uphoff encircles the father figure, or ‘the Minotaur’ as she calls him, with fairy-tale language, only to speak out loud and clear when she tells the story of her half-sister, who grows up to marry a man who abuses their children. In a newspaper interview, Uphoff says: ‘I had to develop a new vocabulary. There were only limited dichotomies, such as victim and perpetrator, but they don’t do justice to the fabric, to the fact that everything is interconnected and embedded in the silent society.’
MM is not a Cinderella who will eventually be awarded for her suffering. Still, her story is a posthumous revenge against the man in the labyrinth. Healing comes in the form of reconciliation between the sisters after a great release of anger. And there is hope, in the home MM has created with Oleg, where she finally feels safe: ‘Running your fingers down the slippery pebbles of his spine… so much peace lying beside you.’ This literary tour de force is a testament to astonishing resilience.