Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado – Book Review

A unique and inventive collection of strange, unsettling, genre-defying short stories, where horror, science fiction and fairytales blend with the themes of sex and death.

I come across many book recommendations without following up on them, but something about this debut grabbed my eye – perhaps it was the intriguing, ambiguous, slightly sinister title that seems to invite many individual interpretations. As it turned out, it accurately encapsulates the spirit of the book and its preoccupation with female bodies that experience pleasure, violence, judgement, extreme surgery, or simply disappear into thin air.

The stories in Her Body and Other Parties range from more or less straightforward to experimental and abstract, and some predictably held my attention better than others. The opener The Husband Stitch is easily the standout and has a feel of a modern-day, erotically charged retelling of a classic dark fairytale, about a young woman who offers her future husband her entire self – all except the mystery of the green ribbon she always wears around her neck. It’s an eerie story about the boundaries and sense of entitlement in a relationship, with mini-detours into other folk tales about girls and women, and stage directions for the reader who is reading the story out loud. Another favourite was Eight Bites, about an overweight woman who gets a bariatric surgery, and is haunted by the ghost of her former self.

Two of the stories, Inventory and Especially Heinous, experiment with a list-making form, to varying results. The former veers into a sci-fi territory, listing a woman’s sexual experiences from her first inklings of desire as a child to her male and female lovers, against the backdrop of the world succumbing to a deadly virus, where physical connection becomes increasingly more dangerous and rare. The latter is the longest story in the book, and the only one I eventually skipped past. It has an interesting concept – re-inventing the TV show Law & Order: SVU in a weird fantastical alternate universe, with every episode summarised in a short blurb – but it quickly overstays its welcome and drags on for far too many seasons.

Machado has a gift for unusual, punchy descriptions that pull you into her worlds, and making ordinary everyday things feel vivid or surreal, whether it’s the contents of a couple’s fridge or a young teenager’s bursting pimples. Her writing has a fearless, ragged edge to it, and it kept me engaged and immersed through the more shapeless stories that have less of an obvious narrative drive, usually told by the troubled protagonists caught between their present lives, recollections of the past, and the unreal. I particularly enjoyed The Resident, about a writer slowly losing her mind while staying at the remote artist’s retreat in the mountains. It also contains the book’s most striking quote:

“Do you ever worry,” she asked me, “that you’re the madwoman in the attic?”

This is definitely one of the books that I can see myself returning to, possibly to find different layers and details on every new re-read. Though I don’t think I’ll ever finish the Law & Order: Especially Tedious.

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