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Review: “Her Body and Other Parties” by Carmen Maria Machado

Sometimes fiction is like a mangrove swamp, or a log slumping into rich decomposition in a forest: natural, wild, an ecosystem unto itself. Other fiction is like clockwork puzzles, or ornate and jewel-encrusted nesting boxes: they are finicky things, filled with interlocking story logic. Then there are stories – and, indeed, collections of stories – that have a little of the organic to them, and a little bit of whirring clockwork complexity.

Carmen Maria Machado’s 2017 collection of short stories, Her Body and Other Parties, is an example of this last, and brings something else to the party, to boot: a warm, sometimes unsettling sexuality that pervades many of the tales like the warm, humid wind off the bay. Machado packs a hell of a lot into eight stories. They range from the subtle and insidious (“The Resident”) to the experimental (“Especially Heinous”). Each is written in a unique voice. Machado plays with language, with tone and verbiage and perspective, in a way that is both eerie and lovely.

Her Body refuses to rest easily in the grave of genre. Parul Sehgal, writing in the New York Times, describes it as “borrowing from science fiction, queer theory, and horror,” all of which are currents running beneath the surface of these tales of love, blood, paranoia, and lust. I don’t put much stock in the distinction between horror fiction and literature – or, rather, I think that there are plenty of works that fall neatly into one category or the other, but plenty more that dwell in the grey area where the two meet and mingle. There’s nothing in Machado’s collection that I would classify as anything less than literary; it was, after all, a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction, a “literary” honor. But it also lives and breathes like a collection of horror stories – and it won the Shirley Jackson Award, which celebrates horror and dark fantasy.

As the title implies, sex and gender play a big role in this collection. Her Body is an assemblage of women’s stories and stories about women, about love, commitment, motherhood, madness, and physicality. It is one of the strangest, wildest books I’ve read in some time, and I say that as a ringing endorsement. Not every story in Her Body is a “horror” story, per se, but horror fans will find plenty here that will satisfy. Machado’s collection contains a great deal of smart, incisive, and subtle commentary about gender, but make no mistake: it is also haunted, populated by ferocious revenants.

Photo courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania

One quick point: both Sehgal’s review for the New York Times and Nora Caplan-Bricker’s review for Slate refer to Machado’s stories as “fairy tales,” and I don’t think that’s right, exactly. There are countless definitions of what constitutes a fairy tale. Most agree that a fairy tale is often (but not always) intended for children and that it contains fantastic or fanciful elements. Machado’s story “The Husband Stitch” is a fairy tale, no doubt, but not “Especially Heinous” or “Difficult at Parties.” I think Her Body draws more from the wells of surrealism and magical realism than that of the fairy tale. Calling this a collection of fairy tales betrays a bit of dismissiveness on the part of these reviewers, even though their reviews were quite positive.

Her Body and Other Parties is a mazy book that it’s easy to get lost in. There are monsters lurking in it, and no small amount of strangeness. Machado has a vibrant, vital voice, and I can’t wait to hear more of what she has to say.

Also, make sure to check out my new Madness Heart published podcast “Wandering Monster” with John Baltisberger and Lemons Clemons, we talk about monsters and which one is the best of them!

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