Every era has its own fairy tales—fables that teach children what a princess looks like, and what monsters they should fear. According to the short stories in Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado’s exhilarating debut collection, a finalist for the National Book Award in fiction, our foundational myth might be Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, in which violence against women is everywhere and its entertainment value is infinite. Or it might be the triumphant trajectory of the weight loss narrative. Or porn.
In eight searingly original stories, Machado uses the literary techniques of horror and science fiction to expose the truth about our modern parables: that they’re as grotesque and enchanting as any classic fairy tale. In one story, a police detective is haunted by ghosts with bells for eyes; in another, a survivor of rape acquires the ability to read porn actors’ minds. Machado deftly repurposes more traditional imagery, too, including witchy sisters, magic ball gowns, and—the collection’s most self-aware narrator—a woman with a green ribbon tied around her neck. This book is hardly the first to rewrite the old tales from a feminist perspective, a project that has attracted writers from Anne Sexton to Angela Carter, and from Helen Oyeyemi to Leslie Jamison. That these fairy tales functioned as prisons for women—taught them to be princesses lest they become crones, to stay in their towers for fear of what lies outside—is a truth earlier generations long ago divined. But Machado follows the seep of such stories far below the level of consciousness. Can you know that something made a mark on you, she led me to ask myself, and yet not know what it left behind?
Fittingly, many of the women in this collection are yarn-spinners themselves, including the woman who wears a green ribbon in the opener, “The Husband Stitch.” Interspersed with her own story of marriage and motherhood, the narrator tells the urban legends she’s heard all her life about women who strayed from the straight and narrow, and often paid the price. As her own wedding approaches, the narrator remembers the stories of unlucky brides; after her son’s delivery, she recalls warnings about bad doctors and births gone wrong. (The titular “husband stitch” is the subject of many a real-life cautionary tale.) The tales collecting in her mind are “like raindrops in a pond,” she muses; try as we might to trace their paths through our psyches, “once they have come together, there is no way to tell them apart.” No matter how many stories the narrator collects, it seems she has not heard the tale that inspired her own, about a woman whose husband begs for the one thing he can’t have: permission to untie the green ribbon around her neck.
Like all of Machado’s characters, this dutiful mother is the owner of a riotous, ravenous body. “I once heard a story about a girl who requested something so vile from her paramour that he told her family and they had her hauled off to a sanatorium,” she says. “What magical thing could you want so badly they take you away from the known world for wanting it?” Machado brushes past taboo to treat women’s sexuality with frankness and lyricism. Many of the desires pulsing through the collection, as well as its most poignant love stories, are queer.
The supernatural roams free in these pages, but the most blood-curdling horrors are always true. In the brilliant novella Especially Heinous, Machado rewrites the real synopses of 272 episodes of Law and Order: SVU, transforming the familiar world of the show into a kaleidoscope of ghostly girl-children, enigmatic doppelgangers, and angry demons. The story pulls the reader into the subterranean spaces of trauma: A mysterious heartbeat thunders beneath the streets of New York City, and the ubiquitous rape and murder of women connect us all as tangibly as the subway.
The body is the site of women’s vulnerability in this collection, but it is also the primary source of their joy. In a story called “Inventory,” which chronicles a plague’s slow sweep across the planet, the protagonist learns that physical contact transmits the disease. “If people would just stay apart,” another woman tells her, then breaks off: This is a post-coital exchange, and they are naked and entwined. Ignoring the warning, the narrator finds love with another survivor whose laughter “tripped pleasure down the stairs of my heart.”
In another story, rich with the sensuous details of domesticity and motherhood, a woman is disturbed by the not-yet-fused top of her baby’s head, “like a piece of fruit gone bad … like the soft spot on the peach that you can just plunge your thumb into.” She adds, “I’m not going to, but I want to, and the urge is so serious that I put her down.” Later, she spends the violent impulse on a piece of cured salmon: “I make a mark deep in the flesh with my finger, and something inside of me is sated.”
These daring stories are deeply feminist, but never dogmatically so, slipping into the murky places where we begin to fear our desires and desire what we fear. They suggest that the deeper we venture into our own psyches, the less—and less clearly—we are able to see. In “The Husband Stitch,” the narrator’s encyclopedic memory of things that go bump in the night fails her only in the instance where it seems she herself was the girl at the dark edge of the lake. Her own past is “a classic” she’s heard somewhere before, and she tells tales to close in on the things she can’t name. For these women, to spin a story in your own words is to begin to understand—if only in glimpses—what that story has done to you. This may explain why feminists have historically been so fascinated by fairy tales. As the speaker says in “The Husband Stitch,” Machado’s “may not be the version of the story you’re familiar with. But I assure you, it’s the one you need to know.”
Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado. Graywolf Press.