In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado
Published by Serpent’s Tail, 2020
My rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
This account of Machado’s experiences within an abusive same-sex relationship is at once painfully honest and uniquely indefinable. In documenting the reality of her emotional trauma, and the frustration she felt at the lack of representation for queer domestic abuse, her approach is unflinching. In terms of structure and style, she challenges our expectations, shifting the boundary lines of what defines a memoir.
The book forgoes traditional chapters and linearity, opting instead to lay bare memories and musing in a series of short vignettes. Not only is this reflective of the unpredictable way that memories return to us, and the disorientating bewilderment of her lived experiences, but it ties into the recurring motif of attempting to cultivate the eponymous ‘Dream House’ with the supposed ideal partner: these are the moments that make a life; the bricks that build a home.
There are also footnotes littered throughout, highlighting the many symbolic and narrative parallels between her life and folk tale conventions. These traditional (and often cautionary) tales were written to reflect the universality of human experience. By aligning her own life with these widely accepted and morally relatable stories, she attempts to place the reality of queer domestic abuse within the literary canon; a space from which is has been routinely excluded.
There is, in fact, a trio of criminally overlooked social taboos being challenged here: the aforementioned queer domestic abuse; the impact of emotional versus physical abuse; and the uncomfortable reality that women are capable of inflicting suffering. Machado is able to present the nuances of these complex issues in a memoir as intimate and personal as it is outward looking. It’s not always an easy read, the content understandably upsetting at times, but there’s a self-awareness and a beauty to Machado’s writing that counters the darkness of her experiences with a sense of much-needed hope.
On that front, the use of perspective is also worth note. Machado switches on the fly between first and second person, choosing at certain points to address her past self directly. This instantly creates a sense of distance as she discusses certain moments in her life. Is this a deliberate disassociation, necessary to confront trauma from an objective viewpoint? Or is this emblematic of some kind of renewal, establishing the idea that Machado is no longer the same person she once was? Either way, it’s interesting and well-handled; one of several meta reminders that Machado is well aware of her role as a writer and a documenter.
As anxiety inducing as it is eye-opening, and as playful as it is readable, this is a woefully necessary book that I hope falls into the hands of those who need it most.
You can pick up a copy of In the Dream House from Book Depository by clicking here.
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