Review: The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová by Kelsey Parker Ervick

For a book that describes itself as following “Oulipian-like constraints” due to the author’s limited knowledge of Czech and the limitations on the ability of biography to really capture life, The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová (Rose Metal Press, November 2016) is an unrestrained dive into the life of the “Mother of Czech Prose.”

True fans of fairy tales, the kind that lure and snag readers into their dark depths, will find a similar sensation of desire and danger in this nonfiction collage of history. The narrative swiftly pulls the reader through the historical facts and inner life of nineteenth century writer Božena Němcová’s life, using her own letters to lovers and friends, historical documents, carefully collaged images, and excerpts from her writing. The effect is a whirlpool of mystery that thoughtfully pieces together a loving portrait of the historical figure.

Božena Němcová wrote fairy tales, but her own life was anything but magical. After realizing her marriage was nothing like she’d dreamed, she took lovers and wrote dark tales of surreal magic. Her life ended in squalor, but her memory is beloved by Czech intellectuals. The Bitter Life uncovers the woman behind the literary hero, the spirit that drove her memorable tales.

Kelsey Parker Ervick questions what it means to create a factual portrayal of a historical figure while joyfully introducing her meticulously researched subject. The author’s presence is felt even before the second section of the book, which presents an equally intriguing portrait of Parker Ervick herself. As she searches for the truth to Němcová’s history, and quests for a special typewriter, this short memoir examines the pieces of Ervick's own life in the same deliberate manner she stitched together the tale of the Czech writer.

The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová examines what it means to go after what you want, particularly when others get in your way, and whether happy endings mean much at all.

Publication details:
Paperback

348 pages
November 2016
Print ISBN: 978-1-941628-07-2
$17.95