Her Body & Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

Her Body & Other Parties is one of those collections you start to read and wonder why you haven’t discovered before. How could I not have heard of Carmen Maria Machado? Why hadn’t I already read some of her stories?

If you haven’t this collection, do it now. Machado manages to give the oppressive politics of human relationships a sensual eroticism that is hard to look away from. 

In the ‘The Husband Stitch’, the first story of the collection, she imagines someone reading the tale aloud, gets you to make sounds and retell old wives tales that heighten that sense of the oral fairy tale and myth. All the women in the story have ribbons tied around different parts of their body. These ribbons must never be undone. Her main character’s ribbon is around her neck. At the end of the story – don’t worry no spoilers – she imagines the reader, speaking her story aloud, must have many questions about the ribbons. Her response is, ‘For these questions and others, and their lack of resolution, I am sorry.’ Of course, Machado isn’t sorry at all. She is a master at triggering our uncertainty and letting the reader continue to play with the possibilities their mind suggests. It takes us into the realm of mystery and magic, explores a more childlike need to explain our complex contemporary world with the bloody logic of the fairy tale.

In ‘Mothers’ there are more unanswered questions. The girlfriend of the main character leaves her with a baby that they somehow created together. The main character looks at the fragile fontanelle of the baby, falls asleep to its endless cries. At one point says, ‘I believe in a world where impossible things happen. Where love can outstrip brutality, can neutralize it, as though it never was, or transform it into something new and more beautiful. Where love can outdo nature.’

Some of the images she conjures, like the women’s ribbons, take a hold of the imagination. In ‘Especially Heinous’ a play on the tropes of cop dramas so popular on the screen, her female cop is visited by the ghosts of dead girls whose murders haven’t been solved. Instead of eyes they have little bells that tinkle in morse code. Her whole apartment fills with the insubstantial bodies of dead girls and the sound of their eye bells clacking.

In ‘Real Women Have Bodies’ an epidemic is underway. Girls are simply disappearing, fading from view. In ‘Eight Bites’ the main character undergoes bariatric surgery. In ‘The Resident’ the main character is on a writing retreat with other artists. She perceives her talent as an extension of her ability to defamiliarize her surroundings, to focus so carefully on some small thing that ‘it begins to warp, and change, and acquire new meaning’. In ‘Difficult at Parties’ the main character starts to hear the mixture of mundane and painful thoughts of the men and women in porn videos.

As a whole, Her Body & Other Parties really gets you in the guts. I can’t wait to read what Machado writes next.

I’ll be reviewing Nudibranch by Irenosen Okojie next, followed by Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid.