BOOK REVIEW: Her Body & Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

BOOK REVIEW: Her Body & Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

Serpent’s Tail
January 2018
Hardcover, $24.99
Reviewed by Steph O’Connell

Short Stories / Speculative Fiction / Feminist Fiction

8/10

In her provocative debut, Carmen Maria Machado demolishes the borders between magical realism and science fiction, comedy and horror, fantasy and fabulism. Startling narratives map the realities of women’s lives and the violence visited on their bodies, both in myth and in practice.

A wife refuses her husband’s entreaties to remove the mysterious green ribbon from around her neck. A woman recounts her sexual encounters as a plague spreads across the earth. A salesclerk in a mall makes a horrifying discovery about a store’s dresses. One woman’s surgery-induced weight loss results in an unwanted house guest.

Bodies become inconsequential, humans become monstrous, and anger becomes erotic. A dark, shimmering slice into womanhood, Her Body and Other Parties is wicked and exquisite.

 

Machado’s is the kind of writing that you feel, and which asks you to inhabit the story, rather than just read about it. It’s engrossing and engaging and both real and surreal, and it is definitely a surprise to learn that this is a debut collection.

This collection of eight stories covers so many different styles and voices and, while some are bound to resonate with certain readers more than others, the writing skill here is not to be denied.

Of particular note in this collection (for this reader):

  • The Husband Stitch – A retelling of the story known by many names, among them “The Red Ribbon”, in which a young woman has a ribbon around her neck that she won’t let anyone touch, but her partner keeps begging her to let him untie it. This story has quite a few stories within it, all with some message about the expectations on women and the way they are treated by society.

There is a story they tell, about a girl dared by her peers to venture to a local graveyard after dark. This was her folly: when they told her that standing on someone’s grave at night would cause the inhabitant to reach up and pull her under, she scoffed. Scoffing is the first mistake a woman can make.

  • Inventory – It takes a moment for the reader to get into the rhythm of this story, but the style is incredibly interesting as a humanity-destroying epidemic is explored via the narrator’s memories of all the people she has been intimate with in her life, and the things that were going on around them.

We screamed more than we had sex, or even talked. One night, we had a fight that left me in tears. Afterward, she asked me if I wanted to fuck, and undressed before I could answer. I wanted to push her out the window. We had sex and I started crying. When it was over and she was showering, I packed a suitcase and got in my car and drove.

  • Especially Heinous – Another story that takes a while to get into. This is told as a kind of episode by episode synopsis of an alternate universe Law & Order: SVU, and it is by turns creepy, meta, and funny. There are ghost-girls with bells for eyes, doppelgangers, and a resounding Dum-dum sound of which our characters are aware but uncertain of the cause.

“CONTAGIOUS”: Benson stays home with swine flu. Her fever reaches 104; she hallucinates that she is two people. She reaches over to the opposite pillow, years empty, and feels for her own face. The girls-with-bells-for-eyes try to make her soup, but their hands pass through the cupboard handles.

“TRANSITIONS”: Every time Benson flips her bedroom light on and off, she hears the sound. Dum-dum. She feels it in her teeth.

  • Real Women Have Bodies – In which women start becoming incorporeal. No one knows why, or how to stop it.

No one knows what causes it. It’s not passed in the air. It’s not sexually transmitted. It’s not a virus or a bacteria, or if it is, it’s nothing scientists have been able to find. At first everyone blamed the fashion industry, then the millennials, and, finally, the water. But the water’s been tested, the millennials aren’t the only ones going incorporeal, and it doesn’t do the fashion industry any good to have women fading away. You can’t put clothes on air. Not that they haven’t tried.

There are messages in all of these stories, some about the way society treats women, some about the expectations we put on ourselves, and some about the aftermath of abuse. 

Not every story has a well-rounded conclusion or hands the reader answers, some don’t answer any questions at all and leave the reader confused as to how it all fits together, but this encourages you to dig deeper and discuss with other people who have read the story.

It is worth mentioning that there is a lot of sex in these stories, and the stories will challenge you to think.

 

BOOK REVIEW: Her Body & Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

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