Carmen Maria Machado’s Stylistic, Genre-Bending Memoir of Domestic Abuse

Book review: In the Dream House, by Carmen Maria Machado (Amazon / Book Depository)

Author Carmen Maria Machado writes a groundbreaking, stylistic account of an emotionally and mentally abusive lesbian relationship, and underscores the message that domestic abuse in LGBTQ+ relationships are neither the subject of adequate scholarship nor open discussion, nor even, to some extent, belief.

In a semi-linear, genre-bending, frequently surrealistic style, Machado uses a plethora of narrative devices, genre examinations, extracts from existing scholarship, art, cinema, and pop cultural references to tell this disturbing story. It includes establishing something about herself, who she was before she met the woman only ever identified as “the woman in the dream house” and what this relationship was like from its genesis, through its changes, and finally to her freedom from it.

It takes awhile to get into the rhythm of her style, mainly because she’s primarily writing in the second person. It’s distracting at first but becomes less so as you get used to it. It perhaps feels more powerful in retrospect, as Machado concludes the story where it feels like an ending to her, and directly addresses the separate self who lived through this nightmare.

I wish I had always lived in this body, and you could have lived here with me, and I could have told you it’s all right, it’s going to be all right.

The chapters are quick and short before Machado shifts focus and storytelling lens again, which is effective in some ways but frustrating in others. Sometimes a scene cuts away before we get more information that would’ve been helpful or interesting. This is also a testament to the power of her storytelling and world-building, because the reader becomes invested in the scenes she’s so vividly painting, and when they fade to black, dreamlike, and we find ourselves in a new setting with a new narrative device, it can be disappointing.

And I had this feeling too in parts telling about herself, where the camera pans away (and it does often feel camera-like) before we really get a good feel for the entire scope and scene. Like here: “I didn’t date when most people dated. When other teenagers were figuring out what good and bad relationships looked like, I was busy being extremely weird: praying a lot, getting obsessed with sexual purity.” This segues into a story about a menacing pastor at her church and youth group, but doesn’t go as deeply into this intriguing part of her past personality as it felt set up for. But I would’ve read a whole book just building on those two sentences.

Machado is a gifted, amazingly eloquent writer who crafts powerful descriptions and imbues telltale human qualities to the inanimate, a classic trope of any haunted house story, even when she’s not describing the titular house: “Elsewhere in the basement, a Lovecraftian heating system reached long tentacles up into the rest of the house. When it was humid, the front door swelled in its frame and refused to open, like a punched eye.” Elsewhere the haunted object is her own body, a far scarier horror story to be sure. The descriptions of what this kind of relationship feels like are near-overwhelming: “You wander ahead of her, far ahead so you don’t have to feel her presence weighing on you like a pillow on the face.”

The stylistic choices were a mixed bag. When they hit the right notes they’re perfect, capturing something about her relationship and its place in long historical context, even if the mainstream doesn’t always reflect that. Elsewhere there can be a sense of some shoehorning happening. I think overall it’s more impressive and well done than not, though, considering how many elements were at play.

I found the horror story-type tropes most effective, perhaps not surprisingly, in capturing the eerie, uneasy, at times outright horrific nature of the abuse Machado suffered and the actual feeling of the relationship. Sometimes the horror connections were too overt not to make:

You want an explanation that clears her of responsibility, that permits your relationship to continue unabated. You want to be able to explain to others what she’s done without seeing horror on their faces. “But she was possessed, see.” “Oh well, that happens to everyone at one time or another, doesn’t it?”

At night, you lie next to her and watch her sleep. What is lurking inside?

She examines many classic indicators of mentally and emotionally abusive relationships, and although these are harrowing, she does remarkable work in outlining the additional difficulties when these stem from a non-hetero relationship.

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.

Despite much here being, quite simply, harrowing, Machado is clearly writing from a place of peace. She says as much as she brings the story to where she feels an ending of sorts, and emphasizes the healing that can be found in a healthy relationship, and in herself, particularly when she’s finally able to parse all that happened within this nightmare state. It can feel terrifying and stomach-churning, but she doesn’t wallow in it, and I think any discomfort in reading is outweighed by how important this text is.

I enter into the archive that domestic abuse between partners who share a gender identity is both possible and not uncommon, and that it can look something like this. I speak into the silence.

There is a void here, and Machado has accomplished something commendable in writing such an emotional, memorable book that will speak to many who need it. It’s dreamlike, impressionistic, and undeniably affecting, but I would’ve preferred a more straightforward story I think, because the many narrative shifts undermined the impact of such an intense message. The efforts at placing this in literary, cultural, and cinematic history, among others, worked when they worked but sometimes just didn’t, or else had underwhelming scenes.

But maybe, for the author, this was the only way it seemed tellable. Pain and trauma are funny like that, even when you have to write about them — and this book does feel very strongly like a necessary catharsis — and there’s comfort in releasing this into the world, there’s also an intensity for both writer and reader that’s tough to address without some psychological distance. The creative glossing does help to distract from the visceral awfulness of it and focus instead on broader ideas and concepts here, and maybe that’s going to be more effective in getting people to listen and understand than a traditional linear narrative would be. I hope so. 3.75/5

In the Dream House: A Memoir
by Carmen Maria Machado
published November 5, 2019 by Graywolf Press

Amazon / Book Depository

22 thoughts on “Carmen Maria Machado’s Stylistic, Genre-Bending Memoir of Domestic Abuse

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  1. Wonderful balanced review! I’m very eager to read this, but it’s received such universal praise that it’s nice to see some well-reasoned critique as well in an otherwise positive review. (I forget if I’ve mentioned this to you but I work for the publisher that does the Choose Your Own Adventure books, and we had to license the CYOA trademark to Graywolf for that essay, so I’m particularly looking forward to that.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks!! I always feel bad when something is so praised and I have some misgivings but that’s how it is. I didn’t dislike it at all, I just wasn’t as wholly won over as most people were, I guess. I’m really looking forward to hearing your take when you get to it!

      I didn’t know that’s where you were working, how cool! Actually that choose your own adventure chapter was a particularly interesting one, it perfectly demonstrated the lose-lose-lose outcome no matter what you do in a relationship like this. It was a really impressive device to make her point.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Sometimes it’s so hard to give middling or even mostly-positive-slightly-critical reviews to these super praised books, because 3.75 is not a low rating AT ALL but it can look low compared to all the 5 stars. Whenever I write reviews like this all my comments are like, ‘sorry you didn’t like this’ and I’m like no, I did like it, it just didn’t change my life!

        Ooh that sounds really cool, I’m looking forward to that chapter! I’m going to email Graywolf now and chase down our comp copy, actually, we still haven’t received it and I have plans to steal it when it arrives.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I know, right?? I think that’s also the problem if you’re not just naturally a generous rater, like even a 3 is still a book I pretty much liked. But it’s also why I leave ratings off a lot, I feel like it unduly influences people when really I’m just picky.

        Anyway I’m so excited to hear what you think of it, and that’s so neat that you guys got to contribute some part in shaping it 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Star ratings are such a double-edged sword; on the one hand they’re a really convenient shorthand to communicate your overall impression, and on the other hand I want people to pay attention to my words, not my numbers. Sometimes books just don’t fit neatly into the rating system, and then there are other times where books I’ve given 4 stars stay with me longer than ones I’ve given 5 stars. It’s such a flawed system but I’m SO dependent on it!

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      4. Yes, yes, a million times yes! I’m always changing ratings too because I think about them differently as time goes on. It’s so weird that this system has become so important to us even as frustrating as it is!

        Liked by 1 person

      5. I also find it hard to navigate that line between ‘I want people to have access to the thoughts I had when I finished this book’ and ‘I want my rating to reflect the way I feel about the book long-term.’ Book reviewing is hard!

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      6. I was searching for this book on our local library network but it’s not come out in the UK yet. I have not yet read My Body and Other Parties either. Am in a slight reading bog – am in the middle of a few books – all good, but seem to have lost my reading mojo…

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      7. I haven’t read her fiction either but she had a great food-related essay in a collection I read a few weeks ago (“Eat Joy”). She’s a wonderful writer, I can see why her books are very popular. Hope the library gets you a copy of this one soon! It’s definitely worth the read.

        Ugh, I know that feeling. This whole month has been a challenge for me because I’ve been swamped with work, meanwhile a major move is looming next month and I don’t have any energy left after work to deal with it. Even when I get time to read I can barely focus and pay attention. So I empathize! I hope it passes for you soon, watch some good TV until it does 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve just started this book, so it was really interesting to hear your thoughts! I think it isn’t going to be possible for me to have an unbiased review, as the main topic of abuse in queer relationships is such a personal topic for me. I’ll definitely have to link to this review when I eventually write mine, so that it is remotely balanced!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I loved that dedication so much. I knew that this would be an emotional read for me, but that got me right in the gut. In a good way, and in a way that I didn’t realise I needed until now. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve seen so much about this book, it seems to be one of those stories that everyone is talking about, and everyone is taking away something different. I appreciate your review(s) because they are so honest! I’m the type of reader who may get overly frustrated with something like this…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad I can help you figure out if something is for you or not, it makes me happy to hear that I can do that in a review! I always aim to be honest, I appreciate when a review saves me the time by letting me figure out it’s not for me 🙂

      This one wasn’t bad at all, but definitely not one if you don’t like something that experiments with style, fragmentation, some things like that. It doesn’t always work for me and wasn’t as bothersome here as I’ve read elsewhere, but it can be frustrating for sure!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I’m glad she wrote it too, it’s an important topic. I hear such shining praise of her fiction. I’ve only otherwise read an essay of hers in Eat Joy, the collection I reviewed a couple weeks ago, but it was also great! She’s a wonderful writer.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Great review, this one’s on my TBR and I’m really looking forward to it! I really like the way you talk about how the narrative shifts can be both a strength and a weakness here as well, that’s very interesting. It’s good not to go into this expecting an automatic 5-star, but so much of it does sound appealing! I’m especially intrigued by the use of the horror tropes!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! It’s absolutely a must-read, I just felt the style overwhelmed the story at points when the story really deserved to be the focal point. But it was really interesting to see how she structured it, and the horror tropes were especially fitting. Excited to hear your thoughts on it!

      Liked by 1 person

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