I remember a feeling of dread creeping across my skin when I first read Carmen Maria Machado’s debut collection, Her Body and Other Parties. It’s one of the things I hope for when I’m reading new, horror-leaning fiction, and I love it. When I interviewed Carmen for the Oh Comely book club, we talked about unruly bodies, and she said “[if] you’re a woman, or a queer person … then your body is even more in this place where it become hazardous. I’m really interested in writing that and documenting it, but also recognising the beauty in it.” I feel like that dread, and that conversation, alongside Machado’s singular originality in pushing the form of what “a book” can do, comes somewhere close to describing what the experience of reading In The Dream House is.
In The Dream House is a memoir about domestic abuse. More than that, it’s a memoir about domestic abuse within a queer, lesbian relationship; somewhere where it is so far from the images we culturally have of how queer relationships function, that we barely believe that it exists. There is very little literature on queer domestic abuse, on abuse of and between women in lesbian relationships, there are very few reports, and there are even fewer convictions. As Machado points out in one one-line chapter, most domestic abuse is legal. More than that, most domestic abuse which is illegal is a) only fairly recently so, and b) generally heterosexually leaning.
Machado’s chapters veer across different styles and genres, pulling from TV and film and referencing folkloric tropes as she recounts episodes of the abuse she encountered at the hands of The Woman From The Dream House. Partway through is a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure chapter. If you summon the strength to stick up for yourself, go to page 205. If you stay, of course you stay. The chapter loops back on itself as the scene replays, as you, the adventurer, are caught within it. It’s in equal measure of hope, and an acknowledgement of the hopelessness of the situation.
Despite it’s subject matter, In The Dream House is not wholly bleak. That hope glimmers throughout, and, of course, we know that Machado did get out, and is now happily married. This doesn’t go unacknowledged. Machado recounts the story of how she fell in love with her wife, and how they have gone on to build a life together.
On finishing In The Dream House, I wrote on Instagram that I thought it would change how people write memoir, and how people take ownership of their experiences. It’s testament to Machado’s talent as a writer that she has documented her story in such a way that not only has she recognised the beauty within the hazard, but she has made something truly beautiful and important which couldn’t exist without it.
In The Dream House is released in the UK on the 2nd January, published by Serpents Tail
Terri-Jane Dow is the editor of Severine, and a writer based in London. You can find her on instagram @terri_jane.