Books in brief: Stories that are sexy, frightening and proudly ponderous

Short story collections by Carmen Maria Machado and Christine Schutt, and a less successful novel by Guadalupe Nettel

Carmen Maria Machado brings women’s lives to the fore. Photograph: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

Carmen Maria Machado brings women’s lives to the fore. Photograph: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

 

Her Body & Other Parties

By Carmen Maria Machado
Serpent’s Tail
Carmen Maria Machado’s collection of stories, now in development as a Black Mirror-style television anthology series, hums with a sinister, queer, sexy originality. Formally tight and gripping, the stories in this debut book range from science fiction to fantasy, from comedy to horror, all the while breaking down any neat generic category. In this collection, Machado brings women’s lives to the fore, exploring in shocking and inventive ways the different violences, both physical and discursive, visited on their bodies. The opening tale, The Husband Stitch, is brilliantly weird – both sexy and frightening. In it, the narrator, who has a mysterious green ribbon tied around her neck, recounts her relationship with her husband. The story’s ending is daring and strange, and shows just how inventive Machado is prepared to be, setting the stage for the women who follow: one who recounts her sex life as a devastating plague covers the Earth, another who has weight-loss surgery and ends up with an unwanted house guest. A provocative and strange book deserving of a wide audience.

After the Winter

By Guadalupe Nettel
Translated by Rosalind Harvey

MacLehose Press, £14.99
This winner of Spain’s prestigious Premio Herralde is a melancholy account of how two disturbed people crave intimacy yet are incapable of it, and the many ways in which we are haunted. The novel, which is too detached to be called a love story, dissects the relationship between Cecilia, abandoned as a child by her mother and fascinated by graveyards, and Claudio, a fastidious man who fashions an idyll out of isolation. Each has a lover who embodies their neuroses and disorders: Claudio with submissive, craven Ruth, and Cecilia with dependent, moribund Tom.

Reminiscent of Sartre, its themes are pungent: the dead are with us always, les jeux sont faits. The prose is fragrant from the original Spanish, testament to a sensitive translation.

While the psychological paradigms are impressive – the characters’ inability to communicate is mirrored in an intentionally aloof, cool narrative style – ironically this means there is no quickening in the novel; there are the facts of love, the chemistry of sex, the mysticism of death, but you can’t help feeling it’s missing its heart.

Pure Hollywood

By Christine Schutt
And Other Stories, £8.99
This collection of 11 short stories shows how powerful prose can result in condensed fiction that belies its word count. Schutt has used broad themes of separation, loss, age and frustration. The stories vary in length and form, and contain a multitude of experience: frustrations, fears, misunderstandings and disappointments. In Family Man, three pages portray a realisation of unimportance: “He hears his name, but has no desire to know how he might be described in the future: a glass of water, a flavorless man, at best”. In The Lady from Connecticut, “a heavy, heaving woman” walks home from the train station and wistfully recalls the days before she married “Big D”: “Once, she knew the lucky girl’s life in Maryland. The fields and fences, mown meadow, stubble and stalk … Once gardens simply happened and she, slender, was photographed in them”. A delicate display of stories, not all eventful or even memorable. However, the writing is exquisite. Lovers of fine literature will be enthralled by Schutt’s dark and ponderous words.

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