Book Review: Carmen Maria Machado's In The Dream House

A nightmarish tale that's a dream to read

"If you are silent about your pain, they'll kill you and say you enjoyed it." Zora Neale Hurston

Carmen Maria Machado's genre-bending memoir, In the Dream House, is as beautifully written as it is haunting. Through a collection of 145 short stories, none more than 14 pages, many just a paragraph, Machado recounts the chilling tale of how her storybook romance evolved into a relationship of virulence and terror. A rare account of lesbian abuse, Machado challenges conventional (if not legal) understandings of domestic violence within contexts contemporary and historical.

You spend so much time trembling between the walls of the Dream House, obsessively attuned to the position of her body relative to yours, not sleeping properly, listening for the sound of her footsteps, the way disdain creeps into her voice, staring dead-eyed in disbelief at things you never thought you'd see in your lifetime. Dream House as Haunted Mansion

Machado's use of the second-person ("You") methodically draws the reader into the protagonist's terror as they too begin to feel trapped in the titular dream house. Never naming the antagonist (Machado simply refers to her as the "woman" in the dream house) invites the reader to install her own familiar villain in the "woman's" place, manipulating the dream house from imagined space to somewhere the reader feels they may have been before.

“Easy reading is damn hard writing.” Nathaniel Hawthorne

In the Dream House weaves together Machado's own non-linear recollections with multiple genres (folktale, erotica, spy thriller, noir and stoner comedy, among others), film (Lost in Translation), literature (Bluebeard, Utopia, Comedy of Errors, Mrs. Dalloway), and a survey of queer history (specifically in context of lesbian violence). With so much at play, In the Dream House has every excuse to be meandering and muddled, but the perplexing result is instead a rich, one-of-a-kind memoir. It's a controlled chaos: mind boggling, indulgent, personal and political. In the Dream House is not only worth reading, but worth reading again and again.

Quote. Unquote.

Excerpts from In the Dream House

What is placed in or left out of the archive is a political act.

Sometimes you are named for what---not who---you are. The story always looks a little different, depending on who is telling it.

A reminder, perhaps, that abusers do not need to, and rarely are, cackling maniacs. They just need to want something and not care how they get it.

Fear makes liars of us all.

And so when she walks into your office and tells you that this is what its like to date a woman, you believe her. And why wouldn't you? You trust her, and you have no context for anything else.

We deserve to have our wrongdoing represented as much as our heroism, because when we refuse wrongdoing as a possibility for a group of people, we refuse their humanity.

Putting language to something for which you have no language is no easy feat.

But that's the minority anxiety, right? That if you're not careful, someone will see you---or people you share identity with---doing something human and use it against you.

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