Getting back to catch-up reviews! My last pending reviews from October are two titles from the Women’s Prize Squad list: literary thriller The Body Lies by Jo Baker, and dystopian My Name is Monster by Katie Hale.
In The Body Lies, a woman is attacked by a stranger near her home; she tries to move past the incident, but eventually applies for a job in a remote English village in order to escape, soon finding herself a university teacher instructing on novel writing. Her husband refuses to make the move with her, and so they share their small son back and forth; she loves the boy, but aside from the added responsibility of his presence she feels ultimately alone at the cottage outside her new village. This proves to be a dangerous spot as one of her students who knows the area well and seems preoccupied with death begins incorporating her into his writing.
“And I was struggling with my own question of whether there was a way to write female without writing body, and whether there was a way to be female without being reduced to body…”
This is a brilliant book. The opening incident in which the MC is threatened, sexually harrassed, and even physically attacked by a jogger on the street provides a tense hook to tide the reader over through the slower plot setup that follows and also introduces the book’s main commentary- the dangerous ways in which men act as though they are entitled to female bodies. Eventually this theme narrows in on men writing women as objects or even personal possessions, but before it reaches that more bookish point we see broader examples of sexism in everyday life. The bulk of the story actually takes place a few years after the initial street attack, which emphasizes the longevity of even a “lucky” case where the woman walks away alive, fully clothed, and largely intact.
From here we follow our (appropriately) unnamed narrator as she tries to put her life back together, which is further complicated by her husband’s lack of understanding in the face of her trauma, and her new employers piling a ridiculous amount of extraneous work onto her shoulders straight off. The story is littered with small encounters in which the MC is ignored, taken advantage of, or made uncomfortable by the men around her, but at first these present as merely the stresses of ordinary life; our narrator is determined to rise above, and takes it all in stride despite the personal toll. It’s a steady build of friction.
Where things begin to go off the rails in earnest is when one of the grad students stops writing about his dead girlfriend to fixate instead on his teacher. After pressuring her to attend a holiday party, his writing project abruptly changes direction to reflect what he presents as a budding romance between himself and the narrator. I don’t want to say more and give away Baker’s incredible plotting and circling of the sexism theme and the fine line between life and fiction, but rest assured that the creepiness and suspense ratchet up from uncomfortable attentions to an expertly paced life-or-death fever pitch.
“I am not her, I wanted to tell someone, but there was no one I could tell. I am not his idea of me.”
It’s a quick read, smart but not too heavy, and my only complaints are a few too many stories-within-the-story and a frustratingly direct explanation in the final chapters as to what has happened and why. It is likely that our narrator is not a reliable source of information at this point, the only saving grace for the jarring info dump after two hundred pages of graceful subtlety.
CW: rape, murder, physical violence, sexism
My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. Despite my couple of quibbles, I thought this was a wonderfully tense and well-crafted book, perfectly suited to my taste. If you enjoy books like My Sister, the Serial Killer, I’d highly recommend picking this one up!
In My Name is Monster, civilization as we know it has come to a crashing halt in the wake of war, climate change, and a plague-like Sickness. A woman who calls herself Monster seems to be the sole survivor, thanks to a penchant for solitude and the fact that she was able to wait out the worst of it in an Antarctic vault. But she can’t stay there forever, and so sails to Scotland to revisit the ruined pieces of her old life and start anew with anything that’s left. Much to her surprise, among the wreckage she finds a young girl.
“I never understood the idea of total absence. I thought there must always be something. The alternative was too big to comprehend. Now there is nothing. It is vast. I sleep. I wake. I sleep.”
“Now that I have found her, I cannot let her leave me. Now that I know I am not alone, I do not think I can be alone again.”
My Name is Monster is a beautiful post-apocalyptic rendering that does a number of things well, though it didn’t quite work for me as a whole. Part of the reason for that, I must admit up front, comes down to my picking this title up so soon after Diane Cook’s The New Wilderness, another futuristic dystopian with a heavy focus on nature and motherhood.
The story is divided into halves, both titled ‘Monster’ because this is the name both characters use in the period through which we follow them, though the older Monster fashions herself as Mother when she meets the young girl, whom she then gives her own name. This is one of many nods toward Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; ruminations on alienation and loneliness further the parallels, as do Mother’s attempts to ‘create’ Monster as a small copy of herself.
Mother considers herself a survivor and merciless solitude as the key to staying alive; when she finds Monster, a feral young girl who seems to remember nothing of life before the world’s collapse, Mother shapes her daughter after herself, cultivating specific values, routines, and skills that she thinks helped ward off death for herself. But in the second half of the book, we follow the young Monster as she navigates her teen years and, as children are wont to do, gradually realizes that she is separate from Mother, that no matter how similarly they live, their personalities, ideals, and experiences differ. This is the main source of conflict once the reader can be fairly certain of the women’s survival.
It’s a detailed book full of small tensions and existential questions, with some playful riffs on wording sure to please readers who delight in language for the words’ sake:
“They’re long, these days. Long and empty, and they prickle at me like wearing too many blankets. My skin is always hot and itching. I start to understand why waiting has the word weight in it, because it’s heavy, the long time of nothing happening. It takes a lot of effort to move, as if my arms and legs are made of blocks of wood too fat to lift. I wait. I weight.”
The downside, for me, was multifaceted. First, I am exhausted with motherhood themes at this point, through no fault of this book. Additionally, this is a meandering story with little plot, which made this a slow and somewhat directionless read for me. Perhaps most crucially, I never felt properly invested in the suspense of survival. Theoretically the reader should care about the potential end of all humanity, but in practice the rest of humanity is effectively out of this picture, leaving us with only two characters’ thoughts and feelings to consider; the spotlight is on their personal relationship rather than their obligations toward humanity at large, including preservation of the species. This lowers the stakes, in a way. But all of these complaints, I think, come down to my personal taste and expectations not quite jiving with what Hale does provide here very admirably; another reader, I think, may have an entirely different experience. I suspect this will be a hit-or-miss book for many.
My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I think Hale’s writing shows a lot of promise and her ideas are intriguing, but I struggled with this story. Perhaps it’s a case of right-book-wrong-time; I may have had better luck under other circumstances. Even so, I was able to appreciate some of the individual pieces, at least.
The Literary Elephant