By Jay Slayton-Joslin
Joanna Koch’s The Wingspan of Severed Hands explores a world that’s fallen apart. Abandoned cities, cults; technology is the only option to save or doom humans. It may feel like you’ve lived this book, but nothing can compare to the brilliance and terror that comes from Koch’s mind.
In this novella, Koch creates three unique female characters: a young girl, focused on becoming herself, a weapons director in a remote location, and, most interestingly, the weapon that the director has helped develop that has become self-aware. It could simply be some allegorical tale for life and womanhood, but Koch doesn’t stop there and instead they allow the story to help explore what it means to question one’s identity and self when there’s a world that’s beyond recognition. Rarely does a girl questioning her place and her relationship with her mother match the same intrigue as a hike or a weapon gone wrong, but each character contributes so much, and as they find themselves coming together, the pieces of this jigsaw, unrecognisable at first, fit together perfectly.
From the outset, readers will be immediately and comfortably placed in the world that the author created. Koch writes confidently and clearly; each scene feels more like it’s casted straight into your mind than bounced off the page, with descriptions, metaphors and characters rising confidently to allow the compelling story to terrorise and disturb the reader as it comes to its climax. One might expect to find this secretly nestled in Margaret Atwood’s bibliography, with the level of writing and cross-genre appeal. The film adaptation would be made by David Cronenberg to bring the body-horror to life.
For such a small book, it holds a lot of power. Words don’t feel wasted and if you allow yourself to be distracted you may miss something. The complexity works for it, however, and it’s a book that would benefit from multiple readings to decode the layers and power in how it develops its message. It exists beyond just the horror and dystopia it portrays, acting as a lesson in identity, womanhood and self. Within these pages lie the most important aspects of the human identity, and that truth can be more terrifying than the blood, sweat and gore that it is buried between. Make no mistake, this is a bloody and violent book. Fingers will squirm holding the pages as the reader questions what the human body is capable of, how far the body can go till it breaks, and what it looks like when it does.
The Wingspan of Severed Hands is a smart and unique book. Rarely does such a short novel attempt to encompass so much and even rarer is it such a success. In these pages there is a capture of the human condition, and the setting and atmosphere just make it that much better. Perhaps the reason people are often broken, disfigured or bloodied is Koch just knows the truth about us, and they know that to show the truth we need to be in a world that reflects how beautiful and horrific people can be.
Jay Slayton-Joslin is the author of Sequelland: A Story of Dreams and Screams (Clash Books, 2020) and Kicking Prose (KUBOA, 2014). Jay graduated with a BA in American Literature with Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia and a MA in Creative Writing from the University of Surrey. He lives in Leeds, England.