Her Body and Other Parties

her bodyIt’s hard for me to describe how much I enjoyed this book — how much this book was completely and totally up my alley — because the alley is kind of… specific. Does it bother authors when they get compared to other authors? Like, “if you like X you’ll like Y” sort of thing? Because I think it might drive me crazy, but I’m about to indulge in a little bit of that for these wonderfully weird, original, feminist short stories of the supernatural in Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado. These are like Margaret Atwood meets Stephen King; like Shirley Jackson and Patricia Highsmith and Buffy the Vampire Slayer had a love child; as if Robert Aickman started really looking at women for a change.

The first story, “The Husband Stitch,” tells you right away about the kind of thing you’re in for. It is a retelling of the urban legend of the girl with the green ribbon around her neck. But Machado makes the story into something much more than a creepy campfire tale with a punchline. Here, it’s about desire, identity, and the power of narrative (“Brides don’t fare well in stories,” says our narrator, and we watch the story unfold, shivering a little.) The narrator is willing to give herself completely to her beloved husband, to her son, to the life she has chosen — but one thing has to remain hers alone, or everything else will unravel. I loved this weird, complicated story, which reminded me very much of Margaret Atwood’s various takes on Bluebeard over the years.

Other stories are equally strange and compelling. The last of four sisters to have bypass surgery in order to lose weight finds that the “old self” she thought she was going to discard for good is physically haunting her. A story that initially looks like an inventory of a woman’s sexual partners slowly curls into the shape of an apocalyptic flu epidemic, and the way we still touch each other even in the darkest times. Disappearing women — is it a virus? is it a malaise? — try to find a way to anchor themselves to the world.

There are two novellas in this collection. The first, “Especially Heinous,” takes us through 12 seasons of a version of Law and Order: SVU that you knew had to exist: where New York rests on the back of a bloodthirsty demon and all the assault victims come back to haunt Benson and Stabler, with bells for eyes. To be honest, I loved the concept, but I never got into this one — too choppy and odd even for me. The other novella, “The Resident,” is about a writer who goes to a remote artist’s colony to work on a novel and is mysteriously connected to her own past as well as to the lacerating judgments of her fellow artists. This one I thought was terrific: claustrophobic, haunting, ambiguous but still with a strong drive.

The title of this book might be slightly misleading — “Her Body” is not the title of a story here. Instead, it’s the subject of every story, in a way, and it’s also the whole collection: her body of work. I found these stories so engaging I read them in a day: blood, hunger, memory, desire, the very strange. See if this is your alley, too.

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6 Responses to Her Body and Other Parties

  1. I’m so excited about this young writer–she reminds me of Clive Barker when he was doing the Books of Blood, with her feminism as front and center as his masculinity. I agree with you about the “Law and Order” novella–I don’t watch the show, so I skimmed through it, not really understanding what the point was. I have told everyone I can think of about how amazing “The Husband Stitch” is.

    “The Husband Stitch” is available now online through Granta here: https://granta.com/the-husband-stitch/

    I hope Ms. Machado has a long productive future ahead of her as a writer. The start is promising.

    • Jenny says:

      I love your comment, Christopher — what you say about Clive Barker is really a propos, especially since I was remiss in not mentioning the important presence of queer sexuality in the stories. I found myself wondering this weekend what she would come out with next!

  2. Oh my goodness, all of the comparisons you mentioned hit my interests! I’ve added it to my Goodreads TBR. Thanks!

  3. Robert says:

    Dear Jenny,

    Do you really think Aickman doesn’t look seriously at women? I think some of his most successful stories (like “The School Friend” and “Into the Wood”) are written from the perspective of a by no means negligible female protagonist, and a number of feminist critics have been impressed by his vision of how domesticity devours a mother in “Growing Boys.”

    With best wishes for the New Year,

    Bob

    • Jenny says:

      You ask an interesting question, Bob. I actually think Aickman isn’t very interested in women *as women*, or men as men either, for that matter. Social roles and gender performance aren’t, for the most part, what he’s investigating. While you’re right that some of his best stories *feature women* (and it was actually “Into the Wood” I was thinking of when I made that comparison — if you read the collection you will see what I’m talking about), they are not really interested in women’s voices, women’s agency, women’s lives. Instead, they are interested in strangeness, ambiguity, wrong turns, odd rites, leftovers from childhood, hands in the dark, sleepwalkers, glimpses of hauntings.

      I am surprised to hear you say that numbers of feminist critics have been impressed by “Growing Boys.” To me, it’s not a very interesting story, nor is it very feminist. Personally, I would like someone to explain “The Next Glade” to me.

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