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Review: Very Cold People by Sarah Manguso

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By Simon Demetriou

Very Cold People is an odd book for me to review, because while it has plenty of literary merit, it is a book that I just didn’t enjoy reading. Now, since this is a novel that sets out to build a sense of unremitting bleakness and unease, we could call the fact that I didn’t enjoy reading it part of its literary success, which is kind of true. However, the flip side is that in being a short book in which it becomes evident early on that the worst or creepiest thing will always be the case in every scenario that involves a female and a male, Manguso’s spare and sometimes captivatingly resonant style ends up masking something that has the dramatic monotonality of an episode of Skins.

Waitsfield is a fictional Massachusetts town in which virtually every man aside from the narrator’s father is a sexual abuser of some kind. Indeed, the comment that brings this extreme bleakness to its most painful and ludicrous extremity is Ruth’s reflection that despite her mother being a sadistic narcissist and her father being emotionally vacant, aside from occasionally joining in with his wife’s jibes, she was actually the lucky one: ‘My father never touched me, and maybe that was the improvement on her own childhood that my mother had been satisfied with.’

And, certainly, when you compare Ruth’s emotionally abusive childhood and the fact she only had to deal with being masturbated over by a psychiatrist while she was restrained and partially drugged, to the incest and serial child abuse going on in all her friends’ and relatives’ homes, I suppose she had it pretty good.

Maybe, as a white male who has fortunately never been subject to emotional or sexual abuse, I’m not qualified to say that the idea of a town in which every male-female interaction is degraded doesn’t tally with a novel that employs a stark naturalism. But despite the power of some of Manguso’s writing, evoking the young Ruth’s hope amidst the coldness – ‘Snow isn’t just frozen water; it carries a remnant of the sky’ – or her stage-fright at a piano recital – ‘The auditorium was like the inside of a slaughtered animal’ – on the whole, the novel’s emotional pitch is pushed so far it feels unreal. And that unreality undermines the novel’s force, turning what could be an important depiction of how literal and figurative coldness can cultivate and harbour terrible abuses over generations, into a hollow grotesquerie. Which is a shame.

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