This is a really tough one for me to review, and not because of the subject matter. I wasn’t drawn to this one on my own, but picked it up because one of my real life book clubs chose it for January. I did the audio because it was available on SCRIBD, a service I already pay for, and I didn’t have time to do the hard copy with my already packed January TBR. This turned out to be a mistake, I think, though not a dire one. I still liked the book quite a bit.
Before I get into my weird experience with this book, I should probably talk a little about the book itself, which is a memoir about Machado’s time in a queer abusive relationship with another woman, who she never names except to call her the Woman in the Dream House (I’m not sure if this is capitalized in the print copy or not, but it feels appropriate here). It’s not a standard memoir, but what I’m going to call a metaphorphosized one, which is a combo of the words metaphor and metamorphosis that I just now made up and haven’t thought too hard about, to be honest. What I mean by it is that Machado tells part of her story straight, as in “this is what happened”, but also tells a large part of it using extended metaphor. For example, in one chapter that really worked for me, she outlines the plot of the film Gaslight and pretty seamlessly connects it to her own life. She also uses the second person point of view for most of the book, because she distinguishes between her current self (married to a woman who respects her) and her past self that lived through these experiences for just over two years. So, she is literally addressing her past self as “You.”
Each chapter is titled using the format “Dream House as _______”. There are over 140 chapters in the book, so most of them are pretty small. Sample titles include, “Dream House as an Exercise in Point of View”, “Dream House as Time Travel,” and “Dream House as Bildungsroman.” Each chapter acts as a different view into the Dream House, which is itself a book long metaphor for the illusion of their relationships, using different kinds of metaphor, or telling different facets of their relationship. It’s a kaleidoscopic way of looking at her experience, and for the chapters that really resonated with me, that made the story feel more visceral.
The problem here is (mainly) the audiobook. I am on the record as being skeptical of authors narrating their own books, but tend to make exceptions for memoirs, unless the author is just exceptionally bad at talking into a microphone (this is rare, but it happens!). My issue with this audiobook is that the author uses Poet Voice for the whole thing. If you have ever been to a poetry reading, you know what I’m talking about. I am very hit or miss about poetry to begin with, just due to my own personal tastes, but I really, really, really hate Poet Voice. It turns words and feelings into false performance. Obviously this is very subjective, but it’s not just that I don’t like it, but that the tone of it actively turns me off. Just! Talk! Like! A! Person! Especially when reading prose! If you don’t talk like that in real life, I don’t want to hear it in your memoir. I don’t want to hear an affected performance, I want to hear you.
I got more used to it as the book went on, but it really threw me for the first hour or so (it’s only a five hours and change audiobook). The core issue here is that I truly can’t tell if my four star reaction to this book is due to its content, or because my feelings were very affected by the audio narration. I want to say that I would have given this four stars anyway, perhaps four and a half, because my own tendency is to prefer more straight prose and subtle metaphor over the obvious metaphor layered upon metaphor being used here. The extremely poetic nature of the prose did at times seem to me to slip away from the personal and towards the intellectual (though this didn’t happen often). But I genuinely don’t know if that perception is accurate. I might revisit the book in several years once that voice is out of my head, and I guess we’ll see then.
As for the content, Machado confronts assumptions about what and who can be abusive in a very personal manner, and that is a necessary topic. Cultural assumptions about women and sexuality have led to many people believing that women can’t be abusers, and especially within the queer community, that it’s hard to get people to believe that queer people can be abusive, too. She is incredibly persuasive, mostly because she doesn’t need to persuade; she just conveys what happened to her and you get it.
So, glad I read this, wish I’d read the hard copy. I hate Poet Voice. The End!