Provocative and fearless, Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties is the short story collection of my dreams. Machado artfully bends genres to create tales tinged with horror, fiction, fairytale, and a dash of humor in between. Some might call this approach risky, but I find it refreshing to pick up a book that is unabashedly original. If the book had a voice, it would be one that people lean in just a bit closer to hear above a crowd.
The collection opens with “The Husband Stitch”, a gothic tale of silence, sex, power, and autonomy. It follows a bold young woman, her life as a wife and mother, and her husband’s obsession with the green ribbon tied around her neck. What I love most about the tale is that it is a story about stories. It mirrors that old horror story “The Green Ribbon” (many of you, like me, might remember this from Alvin Schwartz’s retelling of the story in In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories) while using other familiar folktales to keep the reader at arm’s length while exploring the experiences of women through centuries.
While the marriage is mostly a happy one, the husband can’t let his wife keep her one personal secret, her green ribbon, from his hands. He pushes and pushes until he oversteps boundaries, thus leading to dire consequences. In essence, this also reflects the autonomy many women have lost to the hands of men and society as a whole. Of the eight tales in the book, “The Husband Stich” stands out and was by far my favorite.
The themes of “Real Women Have Bodies” and “Eight Bites” felt very personal. “Real Women Have Bodies” follows two women who fall in love in the wake of a mysterious epidemic that causes women to disappear. The tale is a riff on the fashion industry’s ability to consume women whole while eating away at their self-image. Similarly, “Eight Bites” follows a mother’s path to bariatric surgery due to harmful body image issues. The surgery promises transformation but at what cost? While both tales are critiques, they are also a means of self-reflection. As a woman who has struggled with body image and fretted over her sense of style, I saw bits of myself in these stories and forced me to consider how I view myself currently. You might be surprised what you find out about yourself between the lines of these tales.
What I enjoy most about Machado’s writing is that it evokes pure emotions while forcing readers to question the world around them. For example, just as “Inventory” questions the sustainability of meaningful relationships through a woman’s list of erotic experiences, “Difficult At Parties” recounts one woman’s attempt to rebuild her sex life with her partner after trauma. Each story is political at its root and their otherworldly presentations demand attention. To say I admire Machado would be an understatement. I look forward to reading more from her in the future. I’m confident they’ll be just as dazzlingly daring as Her Body and Other Parties.