Review: Her Body and Other Parties

Carmen Maria Machado subverts the known world and its expectations in her ingenious debut story collection, Her Body and Other Parties. Reading it is a heady and unnerving, sometimes horrifying, experience that opens up human identity as if it were a flower. From the dark corners of existence, from the cracks between pretensions, Machado conjures monsters and angels that, in the light of her deft yet sensuous prose, become painfully recognizable.

Eight stories make up the collection, and many contain elements of magical realism. Machado melds folklore and fabulist images with the raw realities of love, sex, queerness and alienation, forging a poetic sensibility that's full and alive with possibilities in a way that narrower realism could never match. There are also satirical elements in these stories, ironies embedded in the dreamy plots like shards of glass. Nowhere are these shards sharper than in "Especially Heinous," a novella-length send-up of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit that summarizes every episode of the long-running television show. Few writers can successfully blend trenchant wit aimed at machoism and misogyny with truly creepy gothic imagery, perhaps best exemplified by the ghosts of victimized girls who have "bells for eyes, tiny brass ones dangling from the top of each socket." Machado pulls everything together with bravura.

If morals are to be drawn from Machado's modern-day fables, they can be found in her fearless exploration of the human body, the mind and how both meet in one's sexuality. Though these stories shy away from preachiness, their moral power, wrought in metaphor, is undeniable. In "The Husband Stitch," a wife tries in vain to protect the unusual ribbon around her neck that is hers and hers alone. In "Eight Bites," a woman is haunted by the blob-like ghost of her former body, which she tried so hard to lose. And in "The Resident," the alienated protagonist finally understands that knowledge "was a dwarfing, obliterating, all-consuming thing, and to have it was to both be grateful and suffer greatly."

Her Body and Other Parties has so many beautiful lines and sophisticated passages that it would be hard to highlight them all. More importantly, though, it demonstrates that literature, when forthright and brave, can simultaneously dig deep within the self and reframe the greater world. --Scott Neuffer, writer, poet, editor of trampset

Shelf Talker: In her first story collection, fabulist Carmen Maria Machado brilliantly explores the bondage of the human body and the redeeming powers of love and sexuality.

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