Very Cold People by Sarah Manguso: Vipers in the undergrowth

Book review: A frugal family home is embedded in hypocrisy and protective silence

Sarah Manguso has written a delicately controlled, subtle debut novel
Very Cold People
Very Cold People
Author: Sarah Manguso
ISBN-13: 978-1529055283
Publisher: Picador
Guideline Price: £14.99

Sarah Manguso’s debut novel is a Bildungsroman, part of a long tradition in which the intellectual and emotional growth of a young protagonist – in this case Ruth – is scrutinised within the context of a family home, here embedded in a small Massachusetts social milieu.

Ruth’s parents are part horror, part verging on normal, but they habitually mock, ignore and generally undermine their daughter, who on several occasions describes herself as “waiting”. Indeed, Ruth’s dominant feeling is that of waiting, but she is quite clever, adept at making friends and keeping them, her faltering self-worth partly supported by those outside her home, some of whom are gradually revealed to have their own skeletons.

Living in a depressingly frugal household, Ruth grows up conscious of the social divisions represented by the different homes she observes. Yet the real deficit in her family is not so much material as emotional, with both parents neurotically fearful of judgment by outsiders.

Her mother is one of those fictional creations whose own childhood is not revealed until later in the book, but which generates bizarre behaviour that bewilders, hurts and diminishes her daughter. In one instance, Ruth shows her mother a friend’s prettily typed birthday party invitation on its pink slip of paper. You couldn’t do this, Ruth’s mother gloats.


On another occasion after returning home from a family visit, her mother remarks: “Your father thought you looked nice this time.” Passive aggression is Ruth’s burden, the knowledge that in her parents’ eyes she can never be anything but a failure.

When the family move upmarket to a new home, Ruth’s reimagining of the life of its previous owner teaches her more than she realises. Gradually, abuse is revealed on several levels: verbal, sexual and generational. After a stint in a mental institution, older teenage Ruth finally grasps the true context of her home life in Waitsfield. It is a world in which hypocrisy and protective silence have held sway, a world too in which the expression of her mother’s skewed and repressed sexuality distresses her daughter.

Manguso has written a delicately controlled, subtle novel which never shouts its horror. The tone is understated, the writing etched and therefore powerful. Gradually, memorably, she reveals the vipers in the social and familial undergrowth. And what’s more, Ruth triumphs.

Mary O'Donnell

Mary O'Donnell, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a novelist, poet and short-story writer