I’m beginning this review with a necessary disclaimer: I am not able to write an unbiased review of this book. This memoir is so incredibly powerful. It expressed things that I have never been able to put into words myself. It spoke to me, as cheesy as that might sound.
For years Carmen Maria Machado has struggled to articulate her experiences in an abusive same-sex relationship. In this extraordinarily candid and radically inventive memoir, Machado tackles a dark and difficult subject with wit, inventiveness and an inquiring spirit, as she uses a series of narrative tropes—including classic horror themes—to create an entirely unique piece of work which is destined to become an instant classic.
Trigger warnings: psychological abuse, sexual abuse, physical abuse, homophobia, fatphobia, gaslighting
As the blurb explains, In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado is a memoir about abuse within a queer relationship. The main framing device is the Dream House – the house that she shared with her unnamed girlfriend during the course of their relationship. This house takes many forms, and Machado plays with many different literary devices to explore it. My personal favourite was the Choose Your Own Adventure format, where she explored all the different responses she could have had when faced with her girlfriend’s cruelty one morning. It so perfectly encapsulates the feeling of being trapped – because no matter what her response is, it always leads straight back into the cycle of abuse. There’s no way to win.
On a craft level, I thought that this book worked brilliantly. Machado talks to the reader in second person (i.e. ‘you’). ‘You’ are in the midst of this abusive relationship, where Machado’s ‘I’ is looking back, having processed it and written this book. I think that this is a really helpful device for allowing the reader to embody her experiences – I would be very interested in reading about how this worked for someone who hasn’t experienced abuse firsthand. For me, it absolutely hit right on the mark. There were a couple of times where I definitely felt like I was re-living the emotional side of abuse that I have personally experienced before.
It is also an extremely fragmented narrative. Some chapters are only a page long, and they skip through different topics very quickly. I’ve seen some criticisms of that, which I think is totally fair, but again for me, I thought that this absolutely got to the crux of what abuse is like. These short chapters are sudden and unexpected, like her girlfriend’s moods. They skip around erratically, just like Machado’s memory does, because her girlfriend gaslit her into doubting her own memories. And they allow Machado to explore all the different literary devices that feed into her understanding of her experiences.
Finally, I want to just say that I have never read a book that talked about abuse within queer relationships. She actually mentions this early on in the book – how there is an archival silence with this topic. (As in, there are very few records, in both fiction and documentation such as police records.) While I found this book to be extremely useful to myself personally and emotionally, I also think its existence at all is really valuable in that it begins to fill this silence. There are a lot of very basic ideas that need to be challenged – such as the assumption that same-sex relationships can’t and don’t have the possibility for abuse. Machado also talks about her personal belief in the need for narratives with queer ‘villains’. And that makes a lot of sense to me – queer individuals are people too, and equally as capable of bad decisions, behaviours, and abuse. And I do think that the lack of these ‘villains’ makes people believe that same-sex relationships (particularly f/f relationships) are always perfect.
Needless to say, I thought that this memoir was incredible. It is such an important text, not only to fill the archival silence, but also on a personal level. If you’re looking for a less biased opinion, I’d suggesting checking out What’s Nonfiction‘s review.