“You’re not allowed to write about this… Don’t you ever write about this. Do you fucking understand me?” So said Carmen Maria Machado’s ex-girlfriend after she had unleashed a tirade of verbal abuse.
Years later, Machado has written about her experience (“Fear makes liars of us all,” she notes) but perhaps not in a way anyone might have expected. It’s hard to describe exactly what this book is. Well, it’s a slightly mind-bending memoir about two young, ambitious writers whose passionate relationship sours when one begins to subject the other to emotional and, at times, physical cruelty.
But that doesn’t quite capture how it haunts the grey areas of abuse, how it shatters the memoir form, how like a dream it shapeshifts. It’s literature as gaslighting. It ensnares and unsettles, tantalises and wrongfoots.
Machado is at the forefront of a wave of writers (including Sarah Hall, Julia Armfield, Fiona Mozley and Sophie Mackintosh) producing sensual, defiant, highly inward stories that centre on the female body. She was shortlisted for a US National book award in 2017 for her gothic-flavoured short stories about sex and gender. With hindsight, her short story, Mothers, which deals obliquely with domestic abuse between two women, now appears to be a rehearsal.
For all the experimentation, the basic narrative is straightforward. When Machado was at the Iowa writers’ school in her late 20s, she met a witty, worldly, petite blond Harvard graduate who spoke French and was a “mix of butch and femme that drives you crazy”. Machado, who had grown up in suburban Pennsylvania, had dated plenty of men but she had never been in a relationship with a woman before. She finally felt she had found the person she had been waiting for. They had great sex, met each other’s parents, and went on road trips between Iowa and Bloomington, Indiana, where the girlfriend lived in a cabin, which Machado calls “the Dream House”.
But soon little problems arose. The woman became paranoid when Machado didn’t answer her phone. She accused Machado of cheating on her with everyone from friends to her dad. Fights erupted out of nowhere. Machado describes the moment it first dawned on her that she was being abused when, out of nowhere, her girlfriend dug her fingers into Machado’s arm: “This is not normal. This is not normal. This is not normal. Your brain is scrambling for an explanation,” she writes.
Soon, she was doubting her own perception of reality. If Machado expressed satisfaction in her own work, the woman from the Dream House would make her list (even write down) all of her flaws. But the cruelty was often followed by sweetness and denial.
Machado mostly narrates this in the second-person present (“you are”) – hard to pull off without feeling gimmicky – but the book’s organising principle is more dizzying. Since there are so few literary accounts of abusive same-sex relationships, Machado forges a new way of telling her story that borrows from dozens of genres. Some chapters are named after narrative traditions such as romance novel, stoner comedy, road trip, self-help bestseller. Others filter her memories through literary tropes such as Unreliable Narrator or Pathetic Fallacy or Choose Your Own Adventure. The latter invites the reader to make a series of decisions, pointless even though they give the illusion of control.
The section entitled Dream House as Epiphany has one line that simply reads: “Most types of domestic abuse are completely legal.” The effect of constantly switching between narrative traditions mimics the feeling that Machado experienced, that of trying to build a relationship on endlessly shifting sands.
This is the second high-profile book exploring abuse in lesbian relationships to be published in the last year. In the Booker prize-winning novel Girl, Woman, Other, Bernardine Evaristo chronicles a doomed love affair between a coercively controlling radical feminist and a more laid-back theatre producer. But until now, such literary treatments have been extremely rare.
The author writes that her memoir is an attempt to build the kind of archive of same-sex abuse that would have made her feel less alone. It’s an “act of resurrection” that contains many other accounts that she found buried in news reports of old cases. She uses footnotes to track various folk tale motifs in the story, as if this meticulous cataloguing of strange behaviour helps orient herself within a bewildering experience.
As a large woman of Cuban descent, Machado is aware that she doesn’t fit the traditional profile of a victim, which is a “feminine figure – meek, straight, white”. But she also believes that the LGBTQ community needs to have an honest conversation about domestic abuse and to admit: “we’re in the muck like everyone else”. She writes: “queer folks need that good PR; to fight for rights we don’t have, to retain the ones we do. But haven’t we been trying to say, this whole time, that we’re just like you?”
What makes Machado’s memoir so distinctive is not just its inventiveness but its unflinching honesty – about the indignities of abuse, about the vulnerability of growing up feeling fat and therefore feeling “grateful for anything you can get” and also about bodily desires. “The diagnosis never changes,” she writes. “We will always be hungry, we will always want. Our bodies and minds will always crave something, even if we don’t recognise it.”
For all the horror, In the Dream House is a ravishingly beautiful book, a tender, incandescent memoir like no other. There’s no doubt that Machado is one of the brightest literary talents around.
• In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado is published by Profile (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15