A debut collection of eight surreal stories, Her Body and Other Parties examines the emotional toll of gendered violence upon female interiority.
All eight tales of author Carmen Maria Machado’s debut take place against terrifying backdrops—a global plague, the apocalypse, a monstrous shopping mall—and they incorporate elements of the fantastical, from vanishing bodies to otherworldly vistas. A foreboding atmosphere pervades the collection and shrouds it with a strong sense of mystery; despite their fabulist bent, the stories are a far cry from clear-cut allegory, with most ending on notes of suspense and ambiguity.
The best of the stories give voice to the frustrations and longings of marginalized women as they navigate a society obsessed with controlling their bodies. “The Husband Stitch” is a feminist retelling of “The Green Ribbon,” in which a soft-spoken wife struggles to maintain bodily and sexual autonomy over the course of her marriage, while “Eight Bites” centers on the horrific aftermath of a mother’s decision to undergo bariatric surgery. Pieces like these movingly render the inner lives of queer, fat, and brown women, framing everyday problems in terms of the supernatural.
The weakest tales prize experiments in form over compelling storytelling. The worst, “Especially Heinous,” offers alternately snarky and damning commentary on twelve seasons’ worth of episodes of Law & Order: SVU. Paragraph by paragraph, the writing’s solid, but it becomes repetitive and tedious. Like others of its kind, the story comes across as either gimmicky or filler material included to bulk up the collection.
Recalling Roxane Gay, Machado writes sharp prose that moves at a brisk pace, and her work at its strongest defies genre. With a painful level of precision, the author charts the fulfilled and unfulfilled desires of the unnamed protagonist of “The Husband Stitch” over the course of her lifetime, bringing the tale close to literary fiction, but she also embeds lurid urban legends into the spare main narrative, which itself is based on a children’s horror story. The strange mix of genres makes for a novel, unsettling reading experience.
Although uneven, Her Body and Other Parties signals the start of a promising career. Machado has a knack for stirring up vivid emotions with few words, and her upcoming memoir In the Dream House seems well worth checking out.