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Carmen Maria Machado, in Her Body and Other Parties (Serpent’s Tail; $24.99), offers eight genre-bending tales about women on the verge of physical and mental collapse. She threads her debut with fantasies, horror stories, fairytales, fables and science fiction, all with a unifying background of queer theory. A finalist for the 2017 National Book Awards, it’s an enthralling, if uneven, collection about a variety of crimes against women and their bodies.
Machado tracks her characters through love and lust, danger and despair, childbirth and child rearing. In “Eight Bites”, for instance, the narrator (most, here, are women) ponders her post-pregnancy life and body: “Then I had Cal – difficult, sharp-eyed Cal, who has never gotten me half as much as I have never gotten her – and suddenly everything was wrecked, like she was a heavy-metal rocker trashing a hotel room before departing.”
In the collection’s centrepiece, the novella “Especially Heinous”, Machado writes, in summary form, 272 episodes for the television show Law & Order: SVU. Here and elsewhere, she examines popular culture’s fascination with abused women. These summaries, from several sentences to a paragraph long, read like twice-told tales that reflect women’s anxieties. They become, at times, numbingly monotonous, but many might argue that this reflects the nature of the show itself.
In “Real Women Have Bodies”, Machado’s women must learn ways to inhabit a world where their bodies fade without warning. Another epidemic strikes the characters in “Inventory”. What begins as a deceptively simple catalogue of the narrator’s many lovers turns – at a clinical and eerie pace, with the minimal detail typical to this collection – into a post-apocalyptic tale of virus and quarantine.
Machado fills her collection with stories that seem chiselled from much longer works. While these pages occasionally whiff of Angela Carter or Shirley Jackson and establish Machado’s facility in using and repurposing fairytales, any influence seems a mere springboard to forge new paths to survival. In juggling seemingly disparate genres, she guides us through these landscapes of horror and surrealism, granting us a singular experience.
“Tell all the Truth but tell it slant,” wrote Emily Dickinson. Machado heeds this advice throughout, but it’s clearest in “The Husband Stitch”. The story chronicles a woman’s experience of courtship, marriage, and motherhood while offering parallel, cautionary tales of oppressed women. “When you think about it, stories have this way of running together like raindrops in a pond,” writes Machado. “Each is borne from the clouds separate, but once they have come together, there is no way to tell them apart.” A similar effect permeates Machado’s debut.
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