High stakes, fast paced and over way too soon, author Eve Harms has created a brilliantly messed up queer body horror which is still far more enjoyable than you think you’re in for considering the truly tragic setup.
All the characters (but especially Isa with her plushie obsession and relatably terrible family) are engaging enough you would follow them anywhere or at least, I would. I think even if that were less true, the journey is so brilliantly unhinged, I still would want to go along for this insanely gory ride.
Everyone has liked someone so much, they let it totally screw up their normally sound judgement and it gives readers a really believable reason to continue to invest in the story and characters.
I want it to be a series or at least I want to see more stories with the same characters. More, please!
I realize this still says book closet and there are movies …I was trying to post more in depth essays about my non-horror movie picks for letterboxd but for now, let’s say it doesn’t seem to be working out as my long form essays are still umm … kind of a work in progress? And I have a different book setup now so … my book blog is also a word in progress at the moment.
The matter-of-fact way Nick states that his mother died which we are supposed to believe is what first makes him out to be unsympathetic is exactly how I would state it. The nightmare way Nick is believed to be callous therefore suspicious is nothing compared to how those same character traits are painted in women.
This mother’s day, I am thinking about Amy more than my own dead mother. Amy would surely know what to do in this situation. Amy always knows what to do, even if it’s horrifying, painful, scary, and so audacious, cruel, or callous it would never even occur to complacent people like me who have gotten used to their own mediocrity. I could even see being convinced any use anyone has for me is better than my being good for nothing, if the thought of being forced to have children weren’t so deeply, grossly distressing to me.
To Amy, children are …well, whatever it is she happens to need at the time. Insurance. Blackmail. Safety. Something to control. Maybe even an assurance of love.
Of course, Amy, as a possible Narcissist, is also very likely to tell me not to worry about something that won’t really affect a white woman with savings. But she also at least appears to understand how even white cishetero exceptionalism is subject to change at the whim of men. I’m also fairly certain she wouldn’t waste any time assessing how unsympathetic any request for autonomy would be coming from someone like me.
First of all, I am aging. Peope will begin telling me I am either so old I should not expect to become pregnant (and they probably will not take any variance in my cycle seriously) or so old that if I am pregnant, it’s a miracle from Jesus God himself I probably do not deserve, as I wasted so much life on something which has not yet justified the time I sacrificed for it.
If I were commercially successful, it would still be expected that I should want to have children but at least I might be able to get away with saying my characters are my children (that hippie dippie, Stevie Nicks kind of justification for not performing my female duty).
Speaking of womanhood, I also don’t really believe in it. I mean, I recognize that there are persons who feel connected to a gender and I don’t think that is bad or wrong but I myself do not believe in even bioessentialist paganism … which is why I had to rewrite the dystopian monster novel for a nine thousandth time. (Now, anyone who would like to enter into a human/creature symbiosis can do so regardless of gender. I mean, they are magic! They are probably linked to the fae in some sense. They can do that if it’s something that you want, choice being the only real requirement for them.)
But I get that once u use ‘the they’ on mother’s day (ho ho hey hey no they on mother’s day)? You are cancelling womanhood and motherhood! So generally, I really try and just shut the fuck up on mother’s day, which makes me feel even lonelier than I already did just knowing that, though I was dependent on my mother for support, she hated me for being mentally ill. For being a problem. For not being able to easily secure the things that just fell to her.
I mean, I’m sure she also loved me but since I had failed to be the special and exceptional child she told everyone I was, she switched right over to ‘dealing with a mentally ill child on top of everything else she did and excelled at’ pretty quickly. Being and having an exceptional life was important to her. Being an independent woman forging a new life in the great Alaskan! wilderness. In a sense, I sometimes felt I was there only to be part of that exceptionalism which I really did not ask for. Now, I mostly just want to buy VHS tapes and maybe some expensive (used) sunglasses and eat fruit gelatin cups until I die or am killed.
Continuing the list of why I am an undeserving of autonomy:
I don’t dress that well and when I do, it’s weird. I have no concept for being low maintenance or casual while at the same time, I do not really care what my hair or nails are doing. I do not consider hair or nails to be part of an aesthetic? I mean, I put the outfit together. Can’t u just ignore the hair? Or if not, I’ll just put it behind me or under a hat.
I don’t care about other people’s kids though I have managed to factor them in when I think about reproductive rights, something I never bothered with before, possibly because I had pretty severe depression for a very long time and couldn’t think about other people. Also, my mother perhaps did not set the best example as she often expressed a deep contempt for women she did not consider good enough to have children (and that seemed to include an alarming number of women of color or poor women).
She did not seem aware she was born into a bubble of generational affluence. Maybe part of the problem was, it looked like we were poor (or poor enough that my mother could easily lecture others on not being just handed anything in life). Our car had holes in the floor. My dad worked at the mill. I attended head start. We had one TV and when it broke, we had to get rid of cable to afford a new one. Our house was not properly insulated. We didn’t have finished windows. All our furniture came from the dump. So did my first bicycle.
Yet, I had insurance for most of my adult life. We owned our house. I went to summer fine and performance art camps. I went on class trips. I went to college for four years and my parents just paid for it.
My mother told me constantly that she would not take care of a child if I were to have one. She implied I was too sick and too poor to have one. She made it clear she would not help me.
But I am going to have to insist on a more complex narrative than just an evil feminist mother who poisoned my mind against wanting kids. I also didn’t want them or like them. I had no desire to take care of them or a boyfriend, or girlfriend, or parent. I have mostly lucked out in that I have only had to care for my bf’s cat a few times.
I used to think I could relate to Amy’s sense of entitlement to a reward for her effort. Yet, five years of rejections from lit agents has stripped off any idea that trying hard enough is good enough and I don’t have the energy for plots or revenge or pettiness. I am not special. I am not really anything. Except deeply, deeply tired.
What’s interesting is how Nick is finally given a bit of insight into what it’s like having to present a constructed life, something he has never had to consider before. It’s also interesting he could be the dude that wrote that you shouldn’t ever date a woman with no female friends because they have not been schooled in proper female behavior.
He could be the dude who wrote many, many articles about avoiding high maintenance women. I have read those articles when trying to figure out if I’m just repellent to men yet my problems and in a way Amy’s are pretty minimal compared to a lot of people who can’t fit the mold presented here even if they wanted to. Comparatively, the ‘death’ Amy describes just feels overdramatic. Being ignored is not the worst thing in the world and Amy does expect a lot from Nick. She wants him to earn her love the way men are often encouraged to make women really work for exclusivity, for respect – but this should be examined on all levels because the people I love, I love them because I do. It’s nice when they do nice things for me but it isn’t a condition.
I also do wonder how much weight emotional neglect should really be given when Gone Girl, a fictional novel, is often brought up as a real example of women who lie about abuse to get what they want.
Yet, still other analyses dismiss Amy for being willing to play games which I believe completely ignores the real, harmful aspects of society which are far harsher on women who refuse to package themselves in a palatable or relatable manner.
But the truth is, I’m not like Amy. I have a lot of hate and mistrust misfiring within me but I don’t feel like people have to treat me like a perfect and incomparable creature or else. I just want to be treated like a person. I want to be allowed interests. I want to be loved (or let go if you find that impossible). I want to be who I am.
But I know that will disgust a lot of people and I’m scared. I wish I had a mother who could tell me what to do. How to convince people who will see me as dangerous or deluded to just leave me alone.
Now, this type of ‘revenge’ appears like a game very entitled people who don’t think anything of lying (I have met many people who lie compulsively, male and female) would do in some alternate dimension for entertainment. Funny how back in 2014 it almost appeared like freedom.
This is still such an emotionally charged movie despite my previously claiming to hate it. There were a lot of things I didn’t realize I was claiming to hate because one restrictive gender binary was dictating that I should. Or I felt if I did, I wouldn’t have to look at emotions that made me uncomfortable.
This movie played in the background of the very end of my first adult relationship. It was a rental from the local library so I likely had to drop it off on the way out to my parents’ a task my mother pointed out took all day and after everything, I left my jacket in my old apartment, a failing she addressed in her (albeit personal) diary as though I had done it on purpose.
My initial negative associations were also with someone who worked at the library and was equally supportive and dismissive of my writing career (and any other job I may have been able to get in such a small town). She loved this movie. She hated the book Gone Girl.
Post break up, especially because of some truly bizarre situational parallels, I related a lot more to Amy than to Summer. I was team Amy all the way (a reexamination of that movie is probably next) yet, my wanting to be a twee or manic pixie girl was there, too, an ache which I denied because who, really, admits to wanting to fulfil a sexist and unfair male fantasy?
Amy with her assessment of the ‘cool girl’ which now dominates a lot of online discourse around male-generated fantasy, started to seem a lot more actualized. But I didn’t want to be a sociopath just so I wouldn’t end up dating sociopaths. I had to honestly examine what I found attractive about sociopaths in order to stop dating sociopaths. You know. In theory.
But in the summer (ha) of 2011, I felt all my failings as a desirable female person could be pinned on my lack of twee characteristics. My shoulders were too broad for cute jackets or cardigans and anyway, I was too tall. I was constantly looking for the v neck hipster equivalent but, mostly because of where most of those clothes were made, the shoulders slipped off me awkwardly my arms were way too long.
I had to finally face that I was never going to be a Jess or a Zooey. I was going to have to be, of all the horrible things, myself.
But back when I couldn’t face that, I wrote, not literary revenge porn (well, okay, I did that, too) but a version of myself men would actually like. She was totally boring and agents certainly didn’t care for her. It was only after aligning her more with my real self but also with her own real self, a person with motives similar to but also very different from my own, that she became a real person.
Finally, last year, I got an agent to say they liked both the female characters in my dual narrative equally. She didn’t think much of the book itself but maybe this version will be better. Anyway, that’s another subject for another time, awkward closer.
The reexamination of twee movies have not looked kindly on Summer’s character. She has been labelled a manic pixie dream girl – ironic, considering one of the main points of the movie is to make her, much like Clementine In Eternal Sunshine, a kind of anti manic pixie dream girl, the way John Green allegedly made Alaska.
Maybe a lot of my focus on horror fiction has been to avoid the John Green, Twilight and twee fallout of subsequent years. The novel I ended up with fights more against becoming a retro pastiche to teen dystopian YA novels of the later 2010s than its magical realism/twee roots.
Which might have pleased that one developmental editor who blithely told me all my female characters were sociopaths.
Male, female, or nonbinary, I guess I am fatally attracted to a type. Someone both dangerous because they don’t care about me and safe because they don’t care about me. Which is much preferable to volatile emotions that could erupt because you knocked something over. And you were always knocking things over.
Maybe that’s why Summer at first – because I do believe she is allowed to grow as a character – can’t risk the very thing she ends up with. But honestly who can blame her? After ending things with Tom, she faces vitriol so intense, she is forced to transfer to another branch just like anyone Jim dates on The Office who doesn’t end up being ‘the one.’
Actually, Summer’s framing of this concept of the one as harmful is pretty astute for someone avoiding emotional fallout by refusing to acknowledge their own trauma/ feelings.
Then there’s the theme or: literally anything by Regina Spektor was like the twee anthem-ist, if there were such a thing. Honestly both the poignant song from the beginning credits and the one from the disillusionment montage, like two sides of the indie twee musical coin.
Kind of a throwback for those of us already nostalgic for 90s manic pixie dream artists. Speaking of which, I absolutely promised myself I would see if my friend is still alive using this weird random article about the Fiona Apple mva incident as a segue. I just thought it was so weird anyone was bringing that up and how relevant it felt, despite that I had long since forgotten all about that.
I picked up my phone to do it but I can’t, yet. I mean, if she wanted to talk to me, she would, right? Probably, she is still alive but doesn’t want to deal with me. Unfortunately, if I did have a Summer, it would be her. I relate to Tom because I am also partial to the detached, emotionally unavailable type. Someone who has emotions but they’re just stifled by …whatever. This is also a pretty harmful male driven stereotype. Almost like the virgin lesbian trope. Emotionally, she’s not available to anyone but if you can bring that out of her, well, then she’ll only ever belong to you. Or something.
Yet, I refuse to frame my queerness through male binary tropes. (Even if sometimes, it really seems to fit.) In fact, lately, I have wondered if bisexual women are often inadvertently used as part of some dude’s cool girl trope. She’s so cool! She’ll objectify other women with me and obviously wants to fuck every woman I want to fuck because not only are we the same person, but this guarantees she is not jealous. Only other girls get jealous. She’s not like that!
Moving on, it’s also weird seeing Chloe again, I’ll admit. If I built my one adult character off of Summer, I probably built the younger version of her off Chloe. Chloe’s arc as an actress is especially weird for me because she is presented as sort of an antidote to tweeness but only so long as she doesn’t age – like the character in the unremarkable American version of Let the Right One In.
The second she starts to age, they force her to become a girl, reflected in her arc in the Kick Ass sequel. Even if she doesn’t want to, they have no choice but to shove her into that box. My character, as a grown-up, resisted that box and later I realized she is non binary. But wait, is that because I’m non binary and all my characters have to be me?
I will have to get back to you on that one.
Please wait here.
We finally open on Summer and Tom’s story with a charming homophobic joke about lesbian partnerships. Then the titular character is introduced and we are informed that there are only two genders. And I’m like oh darn! This movie is not written for anyone convinced of anything so ridiculous as more than two genders. Which, right away, leaves me out.
I mean okay so there is definitely the Not Like Other Girls trope at work here. (Wait so are the alleged crimes of the accused being a manic pixie dream girls or not like other girls? Or the special girl trope? There are so many ways to put women down and imply there shouldn’t be any of them in a narrative in any way. Mary Sues, pick me girls, cool girls, not like other girls …Smiths fans?) Do we need to go into that now?
Okay so there’s a sort of joke about this movie in my narrative I never got around to changing. Though I was pretty aware even before the rest of the world caught up (due, at least in part to that Simpsons episode) that he has some problems as a person and artist.
But a lot of my earlier work seemed to be going well (spoilers, it was not because I was a really bad writer) whenever he randomly happened to come on on the internet radio station I listened to a lot at the time. (Probably it was accuradio.) A year later, I got pandora and was introduced to Orion Rigel Dommisse who is a much better muse but the reference to the smiths remains. A relic not just of our values around celebrities and alternative music but this specific era of twee where my setting has now found a permanent home.
It seems fitting.
Then we are introduced to an incel … (best advice, revenge porn your ex into literary fiction, paid for by a woman whose own fiction is constantly shit on and her convenience marriage …not that anyone will ever let u forget that Anais Nin was also not perfect! Also she had abortions)!
(So maybe this is a not like other dudes narrative more than a not like other girls narrative, as it’s told almost entirely through a male lens. It might understand why men do the toxic things they do but it does nothing to alleviate any of the toxicity leading to still more situations like this one.)
But I did always agree with Chloe’s character in that common interests do not equal a soulmate. I want to give that lecture to every dude that starts acting weird around me because ‘girls never like tapes/horror/sov movies/ whatevs’ I mean if you both like the same stuff, there will never be any new perspectives. You may as well date yourself or a mirror.
Plus, I wondered how much that longing is just a sign someone was a sociopath and I should steer clear as they also like to date reflections of themselves. And in a way, this movie was a blueprint to how males claim ownership of women they have no right to, expect things they have no right to expect, and will become angry and entitled the second you try and tell them you are your own person or assert your own desires or choices.
(I’m sorry but the pixies karaoke scene is still kind of adorbs. Sorry that’s all.)
Honestly, I do think this movie makes some important progress in male female cis hetero relationships. Summer is complex but not mean. She warns the male character she won’t be able to love him. When he chooses of his own free will to not listen, he unfairly punishes her. The movie recognizes that Tom’s attitudes about relationships are unrealistic and confining.
The narrative also implies that Tom’s framing of other women and their style choices as negative are not okay with Summer. Tom is framed as an asshole here. She is equally unimpressed with him resorting to violence. Summer is always clear about her boundaries.
And yet … you can’t escape that despite the film’s best efforts, Summer is still framed as the bad guy who led someone on, who was, to quote Fiona Apple, ‘careless with a delicate man.’
Only, Summer is not careless. She is very careful with Tom.
And he in no way affords her the same respect.
Yet, as awful as he comes off, I don’t think it’s realistic to expect relationships to end with no hurt feelings or resentments. Still, no one deserves ‘fuck you whore’ simply for being honest about what they want and need.
Which ultimately makes the movie and Tom just as unlikeable as they were back in the 2010’s and the framing around Summer is still really unfair somehow. Yet, her reexamination as a twee icon is equally unfair in its own way.
Aside from twee’s obvious problems with inclusion, centering predominantly thin white cisgender women (something which did enormous damage to me, someone who seems to meet at least a few of those criteria) there really isn’t anything wrong with the way Summer (or Zooey, who declared she would be a feminist and wear a godamn hair bow as though that were actually a common criticism …like, wtf, people) dresses.
But she’s right in that there’s nothing wrong with the Elle Woods aesthetic, either and even though there are definite problems with how short the trend cycle has become, I do love that there is room for both and for all aesthetics simultaneously, because I never could make up my mind.
… I don’t want to say it’s an easy read as in – you can read it without any effort. But I was in a reading slump over the summer and the book was a very hyperfocus experience so I could just sit down and get through the whole story in an afternoon. There aren’t a lot of frills here and the stakes are raised very quickly. The characters are real and likable but in situations where easy choices aren’t possible.
Plus, I am fascinated with chimeras – those stories where someone finds out they don’t share any DNA with their own children? Not being related to yourself is super weird. And it’s a great metaphor for feeling alienated from your body – the dissociative state felt by everyone in medical situations but which is worse for persons who are already marginalized.
I also felt – but maybe this is just me – such an affinity for the concept of having an inner voice telling you what it needs as I think many of us just ignore all those cues. And personally, I would like to have an inner voice that is at least somewhat invested in my well being and doesn’t just yell at me for procrastinating and not trying hard enough at life.
I also wanted to add that if there’s ever a graphic novel version, I will buy it immediately.
A friend once described a cigarette as ‘five minutes you don’t have to worry about anything.’
Maybe you don’t remember, or are starting to forget in adulthood, how very much there was to worry about as a kid, but Shelter for the Damned will bring it all rushing back. A word of caution, though: this isn’t your dad’s horror nostalgia trip. Mark, Adam, and Scott find a place away from the constant questions and problems of adults where they can smoke cigarettes and have those five minutes … only, turns out there’s a horrible price for this respite. Finding out what will alter the reader.
One thing the book understands very well are how the most innocuous childhood memories can twist into a terrifying shape. Adults have forgotten – or are too consumed by their adult lives to think about – these horrors, except maybe, very, very, late at night. Thorn’s work invokes both childhood fears and those late-night moments when existential dread sinks its teeth into you as an adult and suddenly, you remember how helpless you still are.
The reviews for Only Ever Yours falls into maybe three categories. Category one: This is the best book ever! Category two is: The Handmaidens Tale already exists, therefore this book is invalid. (Which seems stupid as The Handmaidens Tale is meant to be taken very, very seriously – which is great! That’s it’s purpose. But Only Ever Yours, despite its bleak tone, is more of a parody.) That brings me to complaint number three, which was my particular complaint – that the book is too bleak. I was pretty confident that this was true. Even if it’s not for teens (and honestly, I’m still not sure) I felt it was just so much of a downer.
Then again, I was used to the teen dystopias which were trendy when this book was written. In that book, gayness can’t be bred out and the two heroines run away together. And Handmaidens Tale has an incredibly bleak ending, which is probably why I remember it fifteen years after I first read it (I am old). But again, tonally, I found Only Ever Yours to be very different. I wasn’t until I’d dismissed the book as dreary (and sorta triggering to someone who has spent years starving themselves) and was on the elliptical machine that I started thinking about it again.
I listen to synthwave on the elliptical. I like future funk a lot but sometimes, I need to feel like I am running for my life from robots who have targeted me for immediate termination. But there’s this one mix that starts with the famous speech from 1984 about ‘a foot stamping on a human face, forever’ and that is just a bit too bleak for me. Again, the bleak complaint. I had the same complaint about 1984, but I got a weird feeling while reading all the complaints that couldn’t think of another book to compare it to other than Handmaidens Tale, even though it is a vastly different book. Something just wasn’t right.
Well, but also, I bought Only Ever Yours at The Salvation Army thrift store (which is its own dystopia. I’ll tell you about it someday) for like four dollars (they overcharge because they care) and then, discovered the last like, twenty pages were fucking MISSING. This is not the author’s fault, of course, though oddly it looked more like an error the publisher had made than someone who really hated the shit out of the bleak ending worse than me. So, on top of the four dollars I had spent, I had to buy a digital copy just to see if the ending was going to be as bleak as it promised. (Spoilers: it was.) Also, since the book was ‘old’ it did poorly on instagram. This isn’t the author’s fault, either but it made the book easier to dismiss, as instagram has become far too important to me.
But I couldn’t stop thinking about the bleak complaint, even writing into my Goodreads review that I hated making that assessment as I hated it when people did that with me. This blog used to be your typical complaint diary and I occasionally posted the entries on my facebook, where my mother’s boomer hippie friends would dismiss my actual lived experiences as ‘too bleak.’ Which I always thought was pretty victim-blamey. Almost as though, my job as a human person was to make sure I only accumulated happy experiences. It was pretty fucking dismissive and the more I thought about it, the more I thought that’s what I was doing here.
Only Ever Yours is unpleasant from start to finish. But so was 1984. But we would never compare Only Ever Yours to that because 1984 is a classic. But tonally, Only Ever Yours felt way more like 1984 than Handmaiden’s Tale. I wonder if the Handmaiden’s Tale comparisons had little to do with plot or tone and was only because the writer is female, and the characters are teenage girls. But to me, it felt like she wanted to write a story about what it would be like to be a Julia, schooled in some anti-sex dormitory. And that is honestly more interesting to me the more I think about it.
Plus, the parody aspects really are funny, in a makes-you-want-to-stop-living sort of way. It was one of the funniest books I’ve read for a while. I was probably judging the author for actually looking as though she’s spent her life starving whereas no matter how much I lose, I worry people still look at me and think ‘she looks so unhealthy. Why can’t she just try making better food choices?’ And that’s not fair. People have problems you can’t see. I do think the concept of thin privilege exists, but I’m not sure it’s up to me to determine who benefits and who doesn’t as I’m way too close to it. To me, almost everyone is thinner and better looking than I am. But someone else might feel the exact same way about me.
Only Ever Yours was written while social media (to the extent we use it today) was still taking off but it still did an eerily good job at echoing the intrusive thoughts which seem to get worse every time I scroll through the feed. Maybe I didn’t like a book that made me think about this. I have to play. Not playing isn’t an option. You can’t win if you don’t play. I also wonder the extent to which, a woman writing about bleak subject matter is punished in a way men aren’t. Every time I saw another ‘bleak’ review, even though I basically agreed, it felt deeply weird, and I would think about the unspoken rules still dictating women be pleasant and nurturing. It’s our job not to have problems or at least, to appear as though we don’t. Anyway, I liked this book a lot more the more I thought about it, and just had to write a new review telling people who don’t want to read a bleak dystopia, why you should reconsider.
There is a very crucial interpretation I took from The Little Stranger which I will hint at but not reveal. I am going to try and write less ‘everything that happened in the book and in my life and adjacent to my life while I was reading it’ reviews and more proper ones.
There is a lot about one’s perspective as an outsider and the outsider’s interpretation of ownership. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as I’ve decided I am going to pursue what I want without any trace of guilt and not care much what gets in my way.
Similarly, Dr. Faraday, the protagonist of the story, imagines that ownership and the status ownership would grant him is more important than anything else. I have read haunted house novels where the house possesses people with their want of it—not just ownership but belonging and can think of no other novel where that fierce, destructive need for having a place in the world so drives the novel other than The Haunting of Hill House.
Only here, the purpose of that need is a little clearer. You are meant to read this as an examination of the cost of class systems but there is also a very subtle treatment of what it is to be female and be expected to want a very specific set of options. Though I would argue class is more important here, as when the protagonist is denied what he wants and becomes not so altruistic, after all, and begins to fight dirty, you sense the reason his methods are thwarted is because he is of a lower class than Caroline.
Throughout the novel, Dr. Faraday refuses to believe in a supernatural explanation and this rejection seems less and less rational as the book goes on to a very specific purpose. Without giving anything a way, I will note it’s interesting how you view him less as a rational male and more as someone who doesn’t wish to confront a force which really could deny his entrance into Hundreds Hall. If the house is haunted, he may have to face relinquishing his claim.
Someone complained about the title being somewhat misleading and all I will say in response to that (again because of spoilers) is I think Little Stranger is meant as the wanting of a child which, like the protagonist, cares only about the object of that desire. As the book wears on, Dr. Faraday’s pretenses of caring about anyone (even Caroline) fall away and we see him for what he really is and that’s far scarier than any specter.
Though I will also mention that, like all well-crafted tales, you are told what is to come in the first few pages. The first few pages reveal exactly what need for possession is at the heart of Dr. Faraday’s character and how he never really outgrows the childish destructiveness that doesn’t care who he hurts as long as he can have what he longs for.
I’m not as familiar with the Gothic novels from the fifties and sixties as I am with the late sixties and seventies. Gothic novels of the sixties and seventies often conform to white feminism narratives of the time in that, it takes a liberated woman out of their element and places them somewhere less secure (often meaning: non-white) so the stakes are raised a bit, often before they realize it’s a lot safer to just go back to Ohio and get married. Yet, they managed to be subversive in creating an outlet addressing needs for passion, independence, and adventure women had which were not often addressed by other aspects of pop culture at the time.
Mexican Gothic fits in seamlessly with the more aesthetic aspects of the few earlier Gothic novels I have read. The woman in these novels must be independent, as the locale would scare away the less intrepid. She must be curious to a fault and unwilling to give up once a mystery presents itself. Often, the story is built around the idea of a woman being lured somewhere by her unconventionality. Here, there is a much more practical reason the somewhat frivolous Noemí must leave the comforts of her life of wealth and leisure in Mexico City—to go to the small village where her cousin has married a once-wealthy man who nevertheless owns a large (but decaying) family estate and discover if she truly is sick with tuberculosis or undergoing some type of breakdown.
Though that she goes at her father’s behest in itself demonstrates a very real problem the protagonist is somewhat in denial of though I think we are meant to view her attitude as ‘I have to get along in a society I don’t always agree with’ which is very relatable—especially now. Though initially, she does not wish to go, she gives in partly to buy herself a bit more freedom. Otherwise, her father might insist she actually settle down with one of her suitors. Instead, he will allow her to change her major to her latest passion—anthropology—as well as transfer to a more prestigious university.
The trope of flighty socialite is interesting because the stakes are simply much higher for Noemí despite her social standing. It is implied throughout the narrative that she is under some amount of pressure to choose something—if not necessarily a man than at least a course of study. Her father is depicted as reasonable—he doesn’t wish for his daughter to be forced into a marriage she doesn’t want, yet his understanding does not come without obligations.
Though there are few reminders of the situation even a wealthy, educated Latinx woman of the times would still face—that women could not vote at this time in Mexico is one of them—you never forget how women are still considered property. Though the situation where Noemí is held captive appears fantastic yet is not too far outside the realm of possibility. It poses the question of what a less reasonable man but one still allowed to make choices for you might do if all they care about is your body’s compliance but not you as an individual.
In an interesting reversal, the wealthy family is imported, Dracula-like, along with servants and even soil into the protagonist’s world and this is used very effectively both as a familiar trope and a way to address white colonialist attitudes as the family also imports their repellent (but far too prevalent even now) views on breeding and superiority: ‘She no longer wondered if Howard Doyle had a pair of calipers; now she wondered how many he kept,’ Noemí speculates at one point. Another reversal is how the love interest is sweet but somewhat passive, and in need of rescue, even the story’s conclusion makes you more certain of Noemí—that she will not submit to a passionless life—than you are that he will really choose to live in opposition of his family’s harmful white supremacist ideology without her there to remind him: ‘You have a damn choice.’
Cynthia Robinson’s Birds of Wonder is never what it promises to be. Usually, I would relate a lot of the plot (which I definitely had strong feelings about) to much personal oversharing in a much longer review here on my blog and make sure people know they are reading the super spoilers review.
However, in this rare circumstance, I am using a single completely non-spoilers review. So, this is going to be a much shorter recommendation rather than anything in depth.
I feel readers need to go into this one without knowing anything other than it starts, as many things in our collective culture often do, with a very beautiful, young, dead girl and the usual suspects you usually try and blame in order to tie up something gruesome as neatly as possible are brought out, lulling us into feelings of complacency and security in knowing we have seen this before.
Only, there’s nothing neat or simple about the characters in Birds of Wonder. In fact, our assumptions about human nature are used against us here – just like the characters have been badly damaged in ways which blind them to the truth and it’s this fatal flaw which drives the narrative.
Fans of more literary mystery novelists like Tana French will enjoy that this isn’t a quick solve and reading about the very human characters.
My parents were going crazy trying to find my brother’s ‘wishes’ like we didn’t just keep him in a box (and in several film canisters I carry around with me sometimes when I’m feeling particularly bad) for the rest of her life, probably the rest of his life, and maybe even the rest of my life, on a shelf in the background of my stupid instagram videos like, there is my brother, my mother, my father and my cat I neglected at my parent’s like the terrible human monster I am. And I walk in and find it right on his desktop. In the center of his desktop, on a document labeled final instructions. I guess my parents thought sudden, hysterical blindness is a really good excuse to force your twenty year old daughter to have such a bullshit cinematic moment. (In case anyone cares: he wanted to be scattered at all the ends of the island. We have two dead end roads running north and south along the coast. We also have a road that goes east up to Harriet Hunt Lake. Mine would be the same if it had been me. And the beach, down the hill from our house.)
After the Burial is also this like…place I could go. For a while. And it made me think about my family for the first time in a long time. Without immediately ordering myself to stop thinking about that because it could accidentally lead to feelings. Or without reminding myself well, they’re dead, so. At the same time, I felt really good about how we were for that short time. My dad wasn’t even being a dick to me about my latest boyfriend because we all knew my brother was going to die. We used to go on these drives to the end of the island and back. And in a way, I wondered if those words were for me. Like, that he’ll be here only here is here, so I can’t leave. Even if I wanted to or even if I suddenly had the ability to. I hold onto the ashes anyway. I can’t let them go. It’s stupid. But I’m too literary (not like quality of writing literary but just that I do write and have written and read things and watched movies) to think it would make any difference. Like, a big cathartic letting go. There really is so little of him left anyway. No one remembers anymore. Just me. But After the Burial of Dog Stanley made me feel ok about remembering them even though the family and experiences described through the beautiful words and artwork are completely different from me and my family.
But there’s a similarity, always, in missing someone. A quality of absence and the hyper-real presence of memory, I tried to convey, clumsily in my own writing. Even if no one ever sees it, my best efforts and the better person I used to be with them, when we were all together and sort of okay, is preserved. It’s a wonderful book and I wish this blog reached more than five people because everyone has lost someone and maybe it could help them remember, too.