The Eternal Sunshine of the Female Mind
Updated: Dec 12, 2020
Her Body & Other Parties
Carmen Maria Machado
in a nutshell Seven tales, seven female voices - plus 272 episodes of an alternate Law & Order: SVU condensed in one short novella. Each story throws off our expectations by mixing realism with a bunch of different genres - thus we encounter noir fairy tales in "The Husband Stitch" and "Especially Heinous", sci-fi dystopian presents where sex and women are cursed with terrible diseases in "Inventory" and "Real Women Have Bodies", magical powers and fantastic creatures in "Eight Bites"and "Difficult at Parties", and finally the haunting of our past selves and desires in "Mothers" and "The Resident". Despite or rather thanks to this heterogeneity, the collection has a unique feel, while each story will keep you pondering for a while!
why? Powerful prose and a potent, perfectly legal stimulant for the imagination.
flavour extract As I learn my new diet - my forever diet, the one that will end only when I do - something is moving in the house. At first I think it is mice, but it is larger, more autonomous. Mice in walls scurry and drop through unexpected holes, and you can hear them scrabbling in terror as they plummet behind your family portraits. But this thins occupies the hidden parts of the house with purpose, and if I drop my ear to the wallpaper it breathes audibly. (from "Eight Bites")
Disclaimer: I am not a big fan of short stories. I know there is scope for the argument that they are the most challenging form of prose because, unlike novels, they have to be masterfully crafted in order to be memorable - yet I love the liberty novels have to be shorter or longer, architectural or sprawling. I grow to feel an affection for most novels I read, because they usually keep me company for a while, which I always fear won't be the case with a short story. Now, this short story collection has been one of my favourite reads in a long time. Part of its power for me lies in the fact that the stories are so tightly knit that one immediately recalls the other, which strikes me as definitely intentional on the part of the author. Some of the characters echo each other, as if they could almost be the same person, or could have been, if only. The other aspect that makes this collection stand out as a single work in my mind is that all stories except one have a first-person female narrator, which alone brings into relief the central concern of the stories with women's experience - of love, fear, motherhood, abuse, violence, fatness, self-discovery and much more. Not so incidentally, I was first attracted to this book because I erroneously read the title as "Her Body and Other Parts", yet my mistake (be it poor eyesight or a Freudian slip) correctly picked up on the recurring theme of the stories, what parts form the experience of a woman other than, through, within and beyond her body.
Initially I felt frustrated by the fact that most stories seemed to have weak endings that left me with no sense of resolution. Yet, on closer thinking, each story had me exactly where it wanted me - fully immersed and invested in the character's secrets and destinies, knowing just enough to keep them alive and present in my mind. I then realised I wanted to be lazy and have each narrator serve me on a plate the meaning behind their strange tales, but the best part was indeed discovering that those endings I had ruled off as too obscure actually made sense on a later reading. The lifelike quality of the narrators' voices had faded into a gradual, still half puzzled understanding of the meaning behind the disturbing excess each story puts forward. All I have achieved, really, is my own interpretation, and the beauty of this collection is that it compels readers to come together and discuss, question, re-think - I sought out other points of view curious to see if they collided or agreed with mine. The other beauty of this collection is its richness of unusual images and metaphors - some feelings are one-beer-deep, anger gets curdled, hearts hammer in cunts, an orgasm is like a bottle breaking against a brick wall, and saying 'I love you' is an unripened pear, real but not ready.
As anticipated, the odd one out in the collection from a narrative point of view is "Especially Heinous", a very short novella (or very long short story) in 272 vignettes, one for each episode of the first 12 seasons of Law & Order: SVU. I have never watched the show, in fact I barely knew it existed, so initially I was sceptical about how much I would be able to take from this one, but a quick googling revealing it's a TV series that deals with especially heinous sexual crimes was enough to get me started. In fact, I got right into it and I truly enjoyed its combination of kitsch lyrical heights with deadpan, non-PC drops. Its ending is strong and fulfilling, but what stayed with me the most is the monstrous-magical New York it depicts.
In short, I cannot recommend this collection enough! For more detailed individual reviews of each story I leave you with my articulate and highly objective mark scheme.