Ever go into a book thinking you know what to expect, but then something appears and you don’t know what to make of it, so you keep trudging along, but that something trips you up? Later I realized that this happened on page one of A Projection. One of the photos on the wall is of a woman with three eyes, and I was so sure it was a fluke (or a painting) that, until I started reading the book a second time, I had forgotten all about it.
Cecilia is the main character in Seekan Hui’s A Projection. She also has two heads, but for a while I thought her second head was a child. While that explanation became less and less satisfactory (you don’t fall asleep with your child on your head), it was the only one I knew, until one of the kids under her charge called it a head.
To this moment, I feel like I could read this book a couple more times and still not catch everything in it. Simply put, the story is about a young woman who gets a job as a photographer. Her client, Mama, wants her to take photos of her children, Candy and Apple, and if she throws in the occasional babysitting, Cecilia can stay in the dark room at Mama’s house for free.
“Dark room” is a long way from the “spacious room” that was promised in Mama’s job listing, but as for her “luxurious home,” Hui does an amazing job imparting the size of Mama’s home against how smothering it can be for the people living there. Mama gives Cecilia a tour of the place and it’s one of the coolest pages for a couple of reasons. First, there’s the fact that for one page Cecilia and Mama look like they’re game board pieces, folded back pieces of cardboard moving around the house.
A “You are here” sign gives you a clue of the size of the place. Maps that say “You are here” appear in malls and zoos. To have a house that’s comparable means it must be huge, and it feels like Eloise at the Plaza when Cecilia first walks inside.
One door is marked “Alternative Entrance” but no exits are mentioned. You’d think an alternative entrance would work both ways, but the emphasis on coming in, and not going out, is very horror movie-esque. Later Cecilia talks about feeling like she’s being watched — and there are a ton of photos on the walls — but as a photographer you wouldn’t think they’d have such an intimidating effect.
Every character is bordered by neutral space. If you were cutting a photo out of a magazine, this would be the white edges, and it gives Hui’s art a decoupage quality. Along with the creamy brown pages, there’s a vintage vibe, as well, that makes the use of cell phones always surprising, because you forget this story is taking place in modern times. While the colors are warm and inviting, there’s a sadness buried underneath that provides some mystery to Mama’s motives. Eventually, you learn why she’s keen on having her children photographed and you think about people documenting their lives too much, but Hui approaches the subject differently, and the value of photos gets readdressed.
Process that, and there’s still the question of why Cecilia has two heads, and you can see why A Projection isn’t a book you can read just once. Maybe it wouldn’t have hurt to have a few things explained explicitly, but the interior of Hui’s world is like a dollhouse mixed with a labyrinth, tugging at your curiosity as you grow more lost.
A Projection is available now from Avery Hill Publishing.