By Christina Spillman
Carmen Maria Machado’s debut book was shortlisted for the National Book Award for Fiction after being published by Graywolf Press in 2017. Her Body and Other Parties is a modern, feminist take on horror and science fiction. This collection of short stories has eight pieces, each of which seems to stand alone in its own world. Each story blends a paranormal framework filled with the types of stories women feel may have been lifted directly from their lives.
Her magnum opus is her opener: “The Husband Stitch.” Machado draws inspiration for this piece of hauntingly magical realism from creepy kids’ tales, specifically one called “The Green Ribbon” which tells the story of a girl whose ribbon on her neck holds her head on. She tells a discerning and disturbing grown-up version: “‘Why do you want to hide it from me?’ 'I'm not hiding it. It just isn't yours.’” Despite loving her, and not being “evil,” the husband can’t resist wanting to see underneath the ribbon, therefore killing his wife. This story presents a lot of thematic ideas and questions that continue on throughout all the stories in the book: the autonomy of women, physical pleasure (sex, food), and morally ambiguous love.
Machado’s poetic prose weaves stories that not only call attention to morals of the individual, but modern society. She often speaks, directly or indirectly, about what is fair and unfair, especially in regard to the treatment of women in intimate relationships. She writes, “Not all of us can deal with the illumination that comes with justice.” There is often a question asked implicitly by the narrator: Can they do this to me? Should they do this to me? “Inventory” tells the stories of the narrator’s lovers as a deadly plague sweeps the USA. As the narrator watches the world die, she takes on lovers who find refuge in her home. This discussion of women taking on the good and the bad to make it better for others is obvious in these stories. One of her narrators quotes her father, saying, “You never live with a woman, you live inside of her.”
These stories are good for people simply looking for a new take on sci-fi or women looking for feminist literature. I enjoyed that much of it was metaphorical right alongside the literal words. Her stories are somewhat traditional in structure, but she has a real strength for episodic pieces ( like “Inventory” and “Especially Heinous,” which is a riff on Law and Order). Some moments may come off confusing and require re-reading, but some of the intrigue her stories provide is how open they are to interpretation. If looking for a read to make you question the text, the author, the world, or perhaps yourself, read Her Body and Other Parties.