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Book Review: 'In The Dream House' Uses Shards Of Prose To Recount A Toxic Relationship

An epigraph at the start of Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir quotes author Zora Neale Hurston: “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”

Thus begins Machado’s harrowing account of psychological abuse – a memoir that recounts domestic violence in personal and cultural terms. “In the Dream House” traces Machado’s relationship with a charismatic but volatile woman. The two meet, fall in love, and move into their “Dream House,” but things go awry, and Machado explains her trauma with chilling specifics.

This book isn’t for everybody. Like her previous short story collection, “Her Body and Other Parties,” Machado’s memoir deals with emotional abuse and is matter-of-fact about sex and queer relationships. But this timely, wrenching, culturally relevant work is too important to ignore. In fragments of prose that reflect the jagged shards of memory, Machado dives into the stereotype of lesbian relationships and examines the reality of same-sex domestic abuse – a reality that has lived too long in the shadows.

Let’s be clear: Machado’s writing is exquisite. Each chapter focuses on a different narrative device – the romance novel, the road trip, the creature feature, Chekhov’s gun – through which the author illuminates real-life experiences. In one particularly poignant chapter, Machado recounts how, as a girl, she valued having her own bedroom, her sacred inner sanctum. After locking her door after a fight with her parents, her father removed the doorknob. The author remembers it falling away, a “corona of daylight” spilling into her private space. “It was just a reminder,” she writes. “Nothing, not even the four walls around my body, was mine.”

“In the Dream House” is a tough read – dark, disturbing, incandescent. But Machado bravely has decided to not be silent about her pain, and in sharing her story, she delivers a stunning and important work.

Suzanne Perez is a longtime journalist covering education and general news for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. Suzanne reviews new books for KMUW and is the co-host with Beth Golay of the Books & Whatnot podcast. Follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.