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Review: Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

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My reading this book was a happy accident. A coworker of mine had ordered it for himself, arriving in a shipment of other books we had ordered for the store. The cover art, an anatomical drawing of a woman's neck, caressed by a Kelly green ribbon, drew me in. He asked if I'd like to borrow it, as he'd actually read it already; he had checked it out from the library and liked it so much, he wanted to own a copy for himself. There's not a much better recommendation for a book than someone having read it for free and then voluntarily going back and paying money for it, in this economy, so I accepted his offer and took the book home with me.

It's been a week since then, and I finished the book this morning. I have to say, I loved it. I'm very hit or miss on short story collections; I like having long-form novels I can sink my teeth into, but I was really impressed with the consistent ability of the author to draw me into each story, whether with her writing style, the premise, or just a particularly creepy phrase. Her Body and Other Parties is a collection focused on the female point of view, with a very queer voice, throughout. The genre of the stories can span from fantasy to horror to science fiction, sometimes hitting more than one in a single story. I noticed two very distinctive themes present across nearly each entry in the book: erotocism and violence. This makes sense, as Machado's work has been featured in anthologies for dark fantasy, science fiction, horror, and women's erotica.

Her Body is composed of eight short stories or novellas, all of which I enjoyed but some of which were more impactful for me than others. I will briefly discuss my favorites here, so as to leave some content to the imagination, as well as to allow potential readers to form their own opinions.

The first story in the book, The Husband Stitch, is a retelling of the old story of a beautiful young woman with a ribbon around her neck that must never be untied, lest her head fall off. The narrator tells the story of her relationship with her husband, from the moment they meet, up through the consummation of their relationship, their marriage, the birth of a child, and more. She punctuates this retelling with various stories, old wives' tales, and urban legends that get passed around from person to person, meant to be cautionary lest another woman find herself ensnared in a similar trap, whatever that might be. These are real legends, stories I've heard myself, in one form or another. They serve to illustrate how word of mouth tales such as this can go on to blend into one another and shape much of the female perception of what they should or shouldn't do, whether for themselves or those around them. As the narrator relates her relationship, we see a woman giving everything to the man she loves, who cannot be satiated, as the one thing he desires, at a sexual fever-pitch, is to touch the ribbon around her throat...

The novella Especially Heinous was perhaps my favorite story in the book. After finishing the novel, looking to get others' reactions to the stories held within, I checked several review sites and found this one overwhelmingly among peoples' least favorites, citing it as boring or reptitive. I think Especially Heinous does use repitition but in a very effective way, as the entire novella is a brief retelling of a fictional episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, through twelve entire seasons. Before I go any further, I confess, I've only ever seen two episodes tops of Law and Order, ever; shocking for a true crime fan who reached adolescence in the craze of Forensic Files and CSI. But I think in this case, my lack of prior knowledge allowed me to take the faces I associate with the show, and imagine them in a world loosely related to what I know a crime procedural to be, but populated with delightfully creepy imagery such as ghost girls with bells for eyes and doppelgangers. The repetition only serves to remind us that we're reading what is supposed to be a television show, which often itself becomes predictable. It's also a thoughtful meditation on how we view violent crime as entertainment, which is something that gave me pause, although I like to consider myself a conscientious participant in said types of media.

The third story that I loved was called The Resident, about an author participating in a sort of creative retreat, in a mostly-abandoned hotel, in a section of woods near where she used to camp during her childhood. The Resident has a very autobiographical feel to it, with our mostly unnamed narrator signing as "C M", but there is a strong tone of gothic horror to the entire thing. The imagery conjured up by Machado in this story is the most vivid of the entire book, leaving a haunting presence in the readers' mind. Many trademarks of a good scary story, present throughout the book, take the forefront in this story, from perhaps-omens of hitting an animal on the road, to an abandoned luxury hotel, to extreme mist, lakesides, sunsets, disturbing paintings, night terrors, and some particularly stomach-turning pustules, dipping the author's toes into body horror in the smallest, but most effective way. The story seems to be an exploration of self, where one must tread through the memory of what they percieve things to be in order to reach what is, and with any luck, they will return unscathed from the other side.

Broaching other topics like age, body dysmorphia, sexual assault, toxic relationships and more, this book is an unflinching set of modern fairy tales, where the princess loses her head, the prince is more often than not a handsome woman, and the crazy witch in the attic breaks out.

Below are links to two reviews I found particularly enjoyable, among the others I read after the fact, just in case anyone out there would like to preview the content a bit beforehand, for potential triggers.

Slate: Grimm Meets Law and Order: Special Victims Unit

The Guardian: Her Body & Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado review – powerful debut collection

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Miranda AKA Miramay Cosplay ✨ Member of @ominous_glitch. Comic book store Valk. Self-deprecating comedic relief friend. Meganekko princess.