Review: Her Body & Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

This was a stunning collection of short stories, which put me in mind of Speak Gigantular by Irenosen Okojie. Her Body & Other Parties, is unsettling, surreal and really quite brilliant. Blending folk tales and urban legends with magical realism, comedy, horror and fantasy, I was simultaneously left ill at ease and in awe of what I had just read.

Beginning with “The Husband Stitch”, a retelling of the genuinely horrifying children’s story “The Green Ribbon”, we are introduced to the recurring theme of violence visited upon women’s bodies in various circumstances (e.g. childbirth, sexual assault) by others and sometimes by their own hand. The narrator tells the story of her relationship with her husband and son, giving stage directions at certain points of her tale and weaving in elements from other folk stories. Despite giving all of herself to her husband and child, there is the one thing that she keeps for herself that her husband and later her son cannot accept and that is the mystery surrounding the green ribbon tied around her neck. People familiar with the original tale will know how this ends. I did not, and damn near fell off my seat on the train, when I got to the end. It remains my favourite story in the whole collection.

“The Resident” is a wonderful play on the madwoman in the attic trope, as the narrator in this story travels to an artist’s retreat to work on her novel. The retreat just happens to be in the same area as her childhood camping expeditions with the Girl Scouts, where we later find out that she experienced a traumatic incident. Haunted by her past, infuriated and perhaps a little intimidated by the presence of the other artists who intrude on her space and agency, a sort of madness real or imagined takes over the narrator. It’s hard to know exactly what is imagined and what is real. Personally I felt that it was all real but it’s open to interpretation. But by far the best thing about this tale was this devastating put down of one of the artists, by the narrator who at this point had quite rightly, given the context, lost her shit:

I took a step toward her. “It is my right to reside in my own mind. It is my right,” I said. “It is my right to be unsociable and it is my right to be unpleasant to be around. Do you ever listen to yourself? This is crazy, that is crazy, everything is crazy to you. By whose measure? Well, it is my right to be crazy, as you love to say so much…” The volume of my voice caused me to stand on my tiptoes. I could not remember yelling like this, ever. “You may think that I have an obligation to you but I assure you that us being thrown together in this arbitrary arrangement does not cohesion make. I have never had less of an obligation to anyone in my life, you aggressively ordinary woman.”

Whew! Let that sit for a minute. Now let’s unpack. In this short paragraph, so much is said about women and the need to be accepted, to fit in, to not stand out for the wrong reasons, even within an creative environment which is supposed to welcome difference. And here the narrator is defiantly sticking two fingers up to it all, and fighting for her right to be herself, however ‘crazy’ it might seem to others, with no interference or judgement. I loved it. I sure there are other readings of this but that was my take and it really spoke to me. Plus I really enjoyed that deliciously stunning blow “you aggressively ordinary woman”.

The only story I didn’t enjoy as much, was “Especially Heinous”, a re-imagining of episodes of the long-running TV show, Law and Order: SVU. While you didn’t have to be a loyal fan to enjoy this story, I’ve only seen a handful of episodes, it was more of a novella than a short story and sometimes the pacing felt a little off, and I struggled to get though it as easily as I did the other stories. That said it was cleverly written, complete with nightmarish visions of cold cases come to life, the doppelgangers of the show’s lead characters Benson and Stabler, leading stylised versions of their lives. Still, I have a feeling that if I read it again I will like it a lot more than I did the first time around.

I hadn’t heard of this collection before receiving it through my Libreria book subscription, and I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. The writing was enviously clever, and the stories, terrifying but achingly beautiful and erotic. It’s definitely a book I will re-read in the future.

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