Joanna Koch’s The Wingspan of Severed Hands is a Brilliantly Challenging Work of Speculative Fiction

I tend to value style most highly in works of fiction. Of course, I enjoy the pleasure of sinking into a well-constructed plot as much as anyone, but for me, voice and perspective are most important of all. It is no surprise, then, that I am quite taken with Joanna Koch’s novella The Wingspan of Severed Hands, whose deliberately obstructive narrative strategies are delivered through such stunning, distinctive prose.

The story tracks Adira, a young woman who fights against misogynistic familial and social structures that aim to lay violent claim to her body. Simultaneously, it depicts Bennet, the weapons director of a secret research facility who constructs a sentient, neuro-cognitive device that develops her own disorienting self-awareness. As the novel progresses, these three characters (Adira, Bennet, and the weapon) discover a common, quasi-cosmic enemy.

This is a slippery book, whose hallucinatory sequences leak between different character POVs with stunning abandon. Koch, who has an MA in Contemplative Psychotherapy, applies Cronenberg-esque body horror to transferences of consciousness and selfhood. Much like Cronenberg, Koch intertwines institutional corruption and scientific inquiry with vivid, hyper-visceral depictions of bodily destruction and transformation. Although the novel’s climax swerves into trippy, consciousness-hopping dreamscapes, Koch seems more interested in the intimate interiority of trauma than they are in “cosmic horror” conventions.

The result is an impressive achievement, massive in scope and narrative ambition, but insular in thematic focus. Koch applies elements of experimental speculative fiction to both body and cosmic horror, placing their primary emphasis on the formidable (but ultimately beatable) power of trauma. Although the book goes to nasty places, it does not submit completely to its darkness, and I respect it for that.

Koch is a stunningly original talent, and I enthusiastically recommend this novella.

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