Review: In The Dream House

One of the first books I picked up when I was getting back into reading at the start of 2019 was Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, a collection of short stories that blended horror, sci-fi, feminism, dark comedy, queerness and psychological realism with fantastically weird and compelling results (I have not and never will shut up about The Husband Stitch, the first story in the collection). It was clear to me that Machado was an exciting new voice in fiction and that she clearly had an original imagination and highly creative approach to genre and its supposed boundaries

You can therefore imagine my excitement when I found out Machado had a memoir coming out in early 2020 and guess how quickly I pre-ordered the book. In The Dream House is an account of an abusive relationship that Machado had with another women, who is referred to throughout the book only as The Woman in the Dream House. Machado was frustrated by the fact that, in the aftermath of their relationship, she was unable to find stories like her own reflected in the literary, academic or media canon and In The Dream House is her attempt to correct this glaring omission.

In The Dream House is not structured like a conventional memoir. Each chapter is written in the style of a different genre or narrative trope, ranging from stoner comedy to Bildungsroman to erotica. This is Machado’s effort to reinsert her story into the canon but also illustrates the complexities of living through and telling the story of an abusive relationship. Of course it wasn’t a horror movie from the beginning or else Machado would have run for the hills. The Woman in the Dream House starts off as a sexy, beautiful romcom heroine who makes Machado feel loved and happy and it is only with the passage of time that the extent of her cruelty and her abusiveness becomes clear. This leaves the book with an overall sense of slowly building dread and the is reader propulsively driven forward by the narrative, desperate to see if Machado will be able to escape the gradually escalating behaviour of her partner (which of course she does and after reading this book I was disproportionately delighted to find that not only is she a kick ass author but is also happily married to lovely lady and has lots of dogs).

I have to take a moment to discuss my favourite chapter in detail because it was such a brilliant and creative way of conveying the futility of attempting to appease or prevent the rage of abusive partners and the anxiety and self-doubt this can cultivate in their victims. In ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’, Machado takes the reader through a day in her life with her partner and offers them a series of choices in the style of a choose your own adventure novel. However, the twist is that The Woman in the Dream House becomes enraged no matter what choices you make and the chapter always ends with Machado feeling anxious, miserable and trapped. It’s a devastatingly effective illustration of the fact that abusive behaviour is never the fault of the victim or the result of some terrible provocation, the issue lies with the abuser alone.

Machado also chooses to narrate the majority of the book in the second person, seeming to address the reader throughout and putting them directly into Machado’s shoes. The result is a heightened sense of personal connection and the line between author and reader becoming increasingly blurry. Machado also explains that she chose to narrate the majority of the book in the second person to draw a distinction between the person she is now, someone who is successful, confident and happy, and the person she was while in the abusive relationship, someone who constantly felt passive, powerless and worn down. Towards the end of the book when Machado begins to describe her recovery process and how she came to write In The Dream House, we see her shift into the first person narrative and honestly I never thought grammar and case usage would make me so emotional.

In The Dream House is so much more than a memoir. It is an experiment in genre, it is an academic study of abuse is queer relationships, it is a pop culture analysis of queer representation, it is dark, it is funny, it is sexy, it is devastating, it is clever and it is frightening. Above all it is a primal cry for the world, and in particular for the queer community, to sit up and listen to stories like Machado’s which historically have been brushed under the carpet for the sake of appearances or disregarded as being impossible. Machado has created her own canon where previously there was only a void and I have no doubt that this book will simultaneously be a source of awe, comfort and inspiration for countless people for years to come.

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