I feel like this is going to be a difficult review for me. On one hand, I’m not sure what to say about this book. On the other, I don’t think I can adequately review such a deeply personal subject without having truly experienced such a thing myself. As with any review, I struggle with whether or not my perception mirrors that of people infinitely smarter than me. I rarely read other reviews of books I’ve just finished before writing my own, because I want my words to be authentic. I don’t want to be swayed into impressions that aren’t really my own, but this also causes me to feel a bit of anxiety over whether or not I sound like I know what I’m talking about. I wonder if other reviewers have such self confidence issues regarding literary interpretation. I digress. I do know this book has received a wide amount of praise. It currently averages a 4.52 out of 5 stars from more than 30,000 ratings on Goodreads, and it’s easy to understand why. Machado has a way of telling a story that’s unlike any other. The way this book unfolds is perfect for a memoir, as it reminds me of the psychological nature of memory.
The book is an extremely intimate look at an abusive same-sex relationship with an unnamed woman. Machado uses a series of different narrative styles and introduces different literary tropes to tell her story, which contributes to a disjointed feel that I’ll circle back around to in a bit. She also routinely switches her point of view, sometimes talking directly to herself in the past by referencing a “you,” and sometimes referring to herself in the first person by referring to the much more seasoned “I.” This is a powerful tool in this present case (but something I would usually detest) only because it makes a remarkable point about what abusive relationships do to us. Can anyone navigate the hell of such a relationship and come out the other side as the same person? Probably not, and we’ll forever be caught in a conversational loop with this former version of ourselves, the one we see as naive and hopeless, as we try unsuccessfully to pull them from their delusions. This is similar to the way viewers watch the same sad movie over again and pray for a different result despite knowing there’s no hope of such a thing.
When we grapple with memory, we don’t remember the totality of the experience. We see snippets of only those things that jumped out at us the most. As a result, over time we often cease to remember correctly those events, but we connect the dots around that one fragment and develop a new shell until there’s something uniquely ours floating around our heads. It’s something only we will experience, because it will only exist within the sphere of our internal consciousness. These memories have a fleeting and ethereal nature to them. Machado even refers to this directly when she speaks of the sadness infused in nostalgia, which she refers to as the “unsettling sensation that you are never able to fully access the past; that once you are departed from an event, some essential quality of it is lost forever.” Essentially, every gain will forever be infused with loss due to the ceaseless march of time and the unreliability of our brains.
Just as our memories drift along in snippets, so do the vignettes in Machado’s memoir. They are brief but poignant reflections of specific points in time, highlighting only the most important aspects of each memory. Often in traumatic situations, our brains become very in tune to the sensual elements infusing experience, so Machado deftly intertwines these intimate details into her book. We see, feel, hear, taste and smell everything along with her, because she’s simply that good at what she does. These stories jump around in time, much the way our brains jump around in time when sorting through and categorizing our memories into something that makes cohesive sense, and this doesn’t always result in a chronological interpretation. Honestly, I feel there’s sheer brilliance to crafting a memoir this way. Add to that the fact that Machado’s entire memoir reads like an epic poem, lyrical prose connecting each and every disparate memory in an effortless and intensely beautiful piece of literature, and it’s something unforgettable.
A reminder to remember: just because the sharpness of the sadness has faded does not mean that it was not, once, terrible. It means only that time and space, creatures of infinite girth and tenderness, have stepped between the two of you, and they are keeping you safe as they were once unable to.-Machado, In the Dream House
The work is peppered with passages like this that are mind-blowingly beautiful without actually crossing into the realm of overt pretension. That’s impressive, because there are a lot of authors out there who can’t help but cross that line. Knowing big words is nice, but it doesn’t make you a master of words. A master weaves together something incredible and unique using the arsenal of words they already possess. Throw away the thesaurus and give me something meaningful or don’t write it at all.
As fabulous as the writing was, at times I was disturbed by the disjointed nature of the book. Early on I wondered what, exactly, I was reading. I couldn’t sense the characters. I couldn’t feel the story. I was intrigued, but I was being kept at arms length and that made me intensely uncomfortable. I kept putting the book down and coming back to it later. There was something pulling me back, but I didn’t quite understand what it was until it was too late, and then I had no choice but to see it through. I was hooked, an addict looking for the fix that would fully give me the feeling I was desperately wanting from this book.
That’s when I realized the genius of what Machado had done. She had shown me the nature of a toxic relationship by letting me experience it for myself. The discomfort, the anxiety, and the unease were all things she’d experienced by giving herself over to this relationship that would be her introduction to a kind of toxic love no one should ever experience. And she wanted to bring them to me in a way that is so authentic as to be distressing. Further, giving me these snapshots through a collection of disjointed memories allowed me to see those exactly as she lives them today, far away but still present and haunting. She takes this a step further, however, when she lays all her cards on the table by explaining why she crafted the work the way she did. “I broke the stories down because I was breaking down and didn’t know what else to do.” There was a sadness I felt, however, at the notion that she felt the need to justify her method. After enduring such abuse at the hands of a lover, she’s still apologizing to us, the reader, as if she owes us remorse at having offended our sensibilities. This is another tragic memento of her powerlessness in her relationship, the desperate need to please at her own expense.
Well, I’ve come to the end of my regurgitation of thoughts about this book, and that’s precisely what they were. I didn’t come into this review with a plan of any sort. It appears I did have a lot to say about it, and I’m sure I could pull more from the depths of my brain if I tried, but eventually that would begin to siphon power from the book. It’s something a reader must experience personally to understand the magnitude, and I hope I’ve done it justice. Upon reading, I had contemplated rating this book at a 4, but it’s one that seeps through upon reflection and I feel it deserves higher marks than that for the brilliant craftsmanship and the fiercely personal honesty if offers the reader.