Publisher: Serpent’s Tail
Cover Design: gray318
Book Depository: Paperback
Content Warnings: Rape; sexual assault; horror themes; violence
Carmen Maria Machado has taken everything that could possibly keep a woman awake at night and woven it all into a collection of dark contemporary fairy tales that oozes with horror and social commentary in equal measure. Eroticism with no airs or graces mixed with the impending sense of doom that often faces women creates a well balanced short story collection, which is one of the best of its kind I’ve read in recent years.
The stand out story for me is called ‘The Husband Stitch’, in which a woman marries a man with the condition that he never touch the ribbon around her neck. This is the only thing she ever asks of him, but alarmingly, he struggles to keep his promise, leading to fear inducing consequences. This mirrors both contemporary and historical society where women have notoriously been ignored and trampled over by men taking whatever they desire regardless of consequence.
‘Inventory’ details a woman’s sexual encounters during a widespread plague that is passed through close contact. The story explores bisexuality and female desire so exquisitely, and as a bisexual woman myself, I felt represented in literature for once. For many centuries has female desire been ignored and suppressed and it is frankly refreshing to read about it with such open honesty. Then you have ‘Mothers’ in which abusive relationships are explored, highlighting that domestic violence can occur in any type of relationship. Some readers interpret the child as a metaphor, whilst some suggest this is a story exploring the layers of motherhood and I can see it from both perspectives.
The only reason I didn’t give this collection five stars was the middle story, which coincidentally was also the longest, dampening my enjoyment slightly. ‘Especially Heinous’ takes Law and Order Special Victims Unit and creates its own episodes using issues within contemporary society. However, it didn’t quite work for me, as the layers appeared to be so entwined that it became confusing and difficult to follow. Had it been a shorter story, I may have been tempted to ignore my lack of enjoyment surrounding it, but as it took up the most time whilst reading the book, this can not be the case.
The final four stories explore female discontentment and the way women get ignored and are expected to take up as little space as possible. In ‘Real Women Have Bodies’ women are slowly disappearing, still existing but no longer being seen in the same way. This story is ethereal in a melancholic way, whilst the next story ‘Eight Bites’ has a more clinical feel, outlining how women are placed under pressure to look and act a certain way without challenging the system more than is expected of them. ‘The Resident’ discusses the ‘madwoman’ in literature and how historically, women are expected to act in a certain way to avoid being ostracised. The final story ‘Difficult at Parties’ discusses similar themes, with the title itself suggesting that women who don’t conform are themselves difficult at parties.
All of these themes gel together to create a fantastic gem of a short story collection, unafraid of saying what it needs to say, saying it all with the most beautiful language. I wanted to read this book before reading Machado’s memoir In the Dream House to gain a sense of her writing, and now I have, I will definitely be picking that one up. I fully recommend this, and if you have any recommendations of collections that are similar, please comment on this post!
Please note that the Book Depository link is an affiliate link and if you buy any books through it, I will earn a small commission at no additional cost to you. I will be putting this commission towards improving the content I create for this blog.