The Three Worlds of Jesse Ball’s The Curfew

June 22, 2011 | 1 book mentioned 3 3 min read

coverThere are three worlds in The Curfew: the unsettling police state in which William and his 8-year-old daughter Molly live, the shared world of games, riddles, and sadness that William and Molly create together, and the world through Molly’s eyes as she tries to reconcile the first two.

That first world was formed when the government was overthrown, quietly, overnight. “An ordinary nation… had gone to sleep one night and woken the next morning to find in the place of the old government an invisible state, with its own concerns, difficulties, cruelties, injustices. Everything was strictly controlled and maintained, so much so that it was possible, within certain bounds, to pretend nothing had changed at all.” In this new state, the government and the police were unseen. The mysterious disappearances of suspected rebels are the chief proof of their existence. In return, those suspected of being the secret police, or police informers, are in danger of being killed in broad daylight – shot on the sidewalk, pushed in front of a bus – by a seething citizenry.

Brief, unremarked-upon episodes of violence are therefore frequent, as the government and its resistors wage anonymous war on the street, and the rest of the population try to stay out of the way. The book opens with the sound of a gunshot outside William and Molly’s home, which they sleep through.

William is a former violinist, now an epitaphorist, employed by a mason to visit families of the dead and collaborate on the epitaph for the gravestone. He is no longer a violinist because music is forbidden, and because his wife mysteriously disappeared, and there’s no point in inviting more trouble when he’s the only one left to take care of Molly.

Their life together is William’s attempt at an antidote to Molly’s bleak childhood — motherless, a student at a school where she is “told repeatedly to repeat things,” and increasingly aware of the bizarre violence around her. It’s a familiar tale — a parent trying to shelter their child from the harshest reality, knowing that everything they want for their child’s life is unavailable, and having to compensate. William is Molly’s guardian, teacher, and only friend. They spend their evenings playing logic games and solving riddles. In this world bereft of any candor, even this feels subversive. “Is it possible, wonders Molly, for the finest things to be hidden? To be hidden and never shared?”

Much of Ball’s writing takes place in worlds that are slightly off, where the rules of society have been changed, and both the characters in these worlds and we, the readers, aren’t entirely clear what the new rules are. I’ve never felt oriented in one of Ball’s novels, but I’m quite sure I’m not meant to. When you’re in one of these muddled worlds, and something authentic happens – a daughter solves her father’s riddle, or two friends meet on the street – it shines like a beacon.

Ball cultivates these quiet moments for us to see. When William asks bereaved families what they want as their loved one’s epitaph, he always ignores their first suggestion, like “rest in peace” or “dutiful son.” If he sits and waits, the unique details and talents come out, and he’ll eventually add “friend of cats” or “could skin a pig in the dark.” (N.B. One of the men he visits, who wants to decide on his own epitaph before his death, is named Stan Milgram. Stanley Milgram was a noted social psychologist who conducted a famous experiment on people’s ability to torture each other.)

One day, as William is walking from one appointment to the next, he “passed through several alleys, which were themselves connected to other alleys. Here, the backs of things could be seen, unrepaired, unconstructed, unrepentant. Still, one was watched.” In The Curfew, everything and everyone has a hidden life incongruous with the conformity of the police state. One assumes that this is their sustenance, and they’ll make do with it. But one day William runs into someone who claims to have information about the disappearance of his wife. William can meet him later, to collect this information, but he’d be leaving Molly alone, and breaking the curfew.

At this point in the novel, the narration shifts to Molly’s point of view. As William risks his and Molly’s existence in order to learn the truth, we are re-introduced to their lives through her eyes, emphasizing the fact that if William’s risk turns foul, hers will be the only perspective left.

The Curfew is a refracted book, showing that each person is several different stories, depending on who’s looking. As such, it’s a book that evades rational conclusion. But, as someone says to Molly, “The effect of irrational beliefs on your art is invaluable. You must shepherd and protect them.”

See Also: The Millions Interview: Jesse Ball

is a staff writer for The Millions. Janet is a freelance writer and semi-professional baker living in Chicago. Her writing has appeared in The Awl, The AV Club, the Chicago Reader, and Chicago Magazine. She is the co-host of YouTube's The Book Report and blogs about presidential biographies at At Times Dull. Follow her @sojanetpotter.


  1. Both ‘Samedi the Deafness’ and ‘The Way Through Doors’ took me by surprise with Ball’s ability to write meandering, confusing, albeit thoroughly enjoyable stories.

    I am very excited for another novel of his indeed.

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