It’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.