Carmen Maria Machado’s debut short story collection Her Body and Other Parties looks, in every respect, like a book I should love. These are dark stories using fantastical elements to throw light on systematic misogyny. They often refer to and riff on fairytale. Within their pages dwell queer women and women who have lots of sex and women in complicated relationships with their own bodies that are frequently mediated by The Patriarchy. Women who know what it’s like to be low-key afraid in public places all the time.
Machado’s clearly an accomplished writer with plenty to say, whether it’s about internalised fatphobia (“Eight Bites”), men who demand everything of women and then some (“The Husband Stitch”) or the prevalence of raped women in popular culture (“Especially Heinous”). My favourite story, “Inventory”, is eerily relevant right now: as a deadly epidemic rages through North America, the female narrator remembers everyone she’s ever slept with, relishing memories of physical intimacy as she faces a future with no-one in it at all. Social distancing is impossible when you’re having sex with someone, after all.
Ultimately, though, the collection left me cold, for reasons that have everything to do with me and very little to do with it. Machado’s style is perhaps a little too capital-L Literary for me: too controlled, too obviously formal, perhaps, for its subject matter. I like my feminist fairytales wild and wide; I like them to leave darknesses unplumbed and frightening for it.
Having said that, I’d readily recommend Her Body and Other Parties to fans of Angela Carter, Roxane Gay and Helen Oyeyemi. We didn’t meet at the right time, this book and I, but others might.