Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties (reviewed by Penny Reeve)

8 Oct

Carmen Maria Machado’s writing has — very rightly so — been receiving a lot of attention recently. Readers have been champing at the bit for more of Machado’s work since she set the literary world alight in 2014 with the incredible short “The Husband Stitch” and now we’re rewarded with a collection of her short stories with Her Body and Other Parties, which I’m already slating as one of my top reads of 2017.

Machado has some serious literary strings to her bow, having written for NPR, Electric Literature, VICE and the New Yorker. Her short stories have appeared numerous anthologies including Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy and Best Woman’s Erotica. The new collection, featuring the aforementioned “The Husband Stitch”  which was nominated for both the Shirley Jackson and Nebula awards, as well as being longlisted for the James Tiptree Jnr and winning a Pushcart Prize special mention  has received praise from just about everyone, including author du jour Roxane Gay, LA Times and Kirkus, which shortlisted Her Body and Other Parties for their annual titular prize, despite it only being published October 3.

And it’s not without good reason. Machado is an incredible writer producing work that is by turns sexy, scary, feminist, funny and subversive. While reading Her Body and Other Stories I found myself frequently stopping mid-paragraph to chew on the words, prodding them with my tongue to uncover the thick, meaty layers beneath. Within the first couple of pages I was already imploring my friend to buy the book, just so we could spend hours discussing her prose, which left me feeling almost completely overawed.

Here’s a brief rundown of each story in the collection:

The Husband Stitch

Possibly my favourite story in the collection, and a retelling of The Girl with the Green Ribbon. Through it Machado reminds us of the everlasting presence of patriarchy and the presumed, inherited rights of men, even within a loving relationship.

Inventory

Another contender for my favourite story, as a woman details the history of her sexual relationship amongst a changing landscape, in this case an apocalyptic one.

Mothers

A compelling tale of motherhood, of children conceived from love and how even with abuse and the breakdown of a relationship there is still a duty to your child to be their mother.

Especially Heinous

Taking us through the first 12 seasons of Law & Order: SVU and turning the show into an urban fantasy full of ghosts and doppelgangers. I wish I had a grounding in SVU as familiarity with the characters would have increased my enjoyment even more, but by framing each entry around the title of each episode Machado neatly sidesteps any demand for such things. A beautifully playful and wildly creative story which — as with all of the stories — has a serious issue at its heart.

Real Women Have Bodies

Another incredible story where we’re forced to look at the way women relate to their bodies, and how the way we look feeds into a wider societal conversation.

This is the first of two stories that confront body image.

Eight Bites

A mother has surgery to lose her weight; however, it doesn’t want to lose her. A great allegory on post-baby bodies, motherhood and accepting yourself post-partum.

The Resident

A story which confronts childhood trauma and how it is carried with us, while also addressing the writers’ insecurities and worry about creating a worthy piece of art, that is fresh and new and doesn’t fall into common tropes.

Difficult at Parties

A woman struggles to come to terms with sexual abuse but tries to move on by reconnecting with her partner by watching porn.

 

Simply put, Machado is a master of her craft. No matter what genre or literary device employed throughout the collection Machado paints her stories with the most beautiful turns of phrase and layer upon layer of glorious allegory.

There are obvious similarities to draw with Shirley Jackson, Angela Carter and even Sarah Hall; as Machado embraces creeping dread within her, horror and the dark mother and sexuality in fairytale easily create a sense of unease and suspense while subverting classic tropes.

And subvert she does. Although fantastical, the stories are rooted in societal issues that demand we sit up and take note. Each story is provocative and demands that the reader reach for more, uncovering layers to each story that cross the borders between speculative fiction, magical realism, horror and comedy, allowing her to mix and match to create something always a little bit other, a little different, a little queer. Her women are just that, strong, beautiful women, not the idea of a woman presented in so much current pop culture, and her men — when featured — don’t get to be the heroes of the story. Machado’s exploration of the feminine, to me, is one of the most standout parts of the collection, and I hope a generation of young girls will grow up reading Her Body and Other Parties and similar because goodness knows, they need to.

Totally compelling, unconventional and fierce, Her Body and Other Parties is a collection you’ll want to return to again and again. “Give us voices”, chime the girls with bells for eyes in Especially Heinous, and Mechado is doing just that. Highly recommended.

 


Her Body and Other Parties
Written by Carmen Maria Machado
Published October 3, 2017
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