Review: In the Dream House

SPL Book Bingo 2022, Book 6

Note: This is the sixth in a series of posts about books I read for Seattle Public Library’s 2022 Book Bingo. It fills the Latina/Latino/Latinx author square on the bingo card, and I suppose it could theoretically fit the LGBTQ+ love story one as well, in letter if perhaps not in spirit. I’m posting this one before the fifth book I read because I own that one, but In the Dream House has to go back to the library.

Compared to all the other books so far, I read In the Dream House very fast, in the same way that if your house was on fire, you would run out very fast.

Carmen Maria Machado’s first book, Her Body and Other Parties, made a splash upon its release. It was a collection of visceral, sensual short stories that bordered on the upsetting, and I have a distinct memory of reading it while waiting for a bus in downtown Seattle. “The Husband Stitch,” which may be its hallmark storyOr just its most-freely-available-on-the-internet.

, shares many concerns with In the Dream House: intense, consuming love shot through with danger; women’s bodily autonomy; stories viewed and refracted ominously through other stories.

It’s no spoiler to say that In the Dream House is about an abusive relationship. Even if you don’t read the book jacket, or anything about the book, Machado reveals as much in the prologue.

“The Husband Stitch” was notable, in small part, for how it both subverted traditional fairy tales and didn’t. In Dream House, Machado employs a similar tension between her prologue and the preceding “Overture,” which reads, in its entirety:

I never read prologues. I find them tedious. If what the author has to say is so important, why relegate it to the paratext? What are they trying to hide?

The prologue that follows, then, certainly starts out like a text that has something to hide, like it’s trying to be tedious to obscure something and not quite succeeding. But after seven scholarly, allusive paragraphs that cite Derrida and Borges and Greek etymology and generally feel like the intro to a doctoral dissertation, Machado finally lays it out there plainly, a woman with something to say and nothing to hide:

I enter into the archive that domestic abuse between partners who share a gender identity is both possible and not uncommon, and that it can look something like this.

“This” is, narratively, a fractured but generally linear series of some 150 or so vignettes ranging from a few pages to a single paragraph, each titled in the following style: “Dream House as Lesbian Cult Classic.” “Dream House as Chekhov’s Gun.” “Dream House as a Lesson in the Subjunctive.” It’s stylistically dazzling and, because it doesn’t linger on any one moment for too long, as easy to read as it must have been hard to write. But still, the overall effect is that of a horror story.

Almost all of In the Dream House is in second person, so that it’s you, reader, in the dream house in an increasingly untenable situation. If you are inclined to wonder why someone in this situation would stay, it seems to point the finger back at you: why are you still reading, then? Because you want to see it through, one way or another. Because despite how harrowing it is, it’s compelling and even captivating. Because you want to see how bad it can get, though not one single drop of blood is shed. Spoiler that is not a spoiler: it can get pretty fucking bad.

In the Dream House is a challenging book: easy to read but very hard to linger on. Still, despite that I usually prefer my entertainment less fraught, I thought it was fantastic. The thing is that while it’s hard material to read about, it’s not unrelenting. Machado often pulls back from the nightmare that makes up the bulk of the narrative to take hindsight-informed, more expansive looks at her situation, to understand and contextualize it. The framing device is brilliant, and Machado does some very clever, inventive things with it. And throughout, the writing is just outstanding: it pulls you into the all-too-common tense and oppressive moments, but the more dispassionate chapters are sharp and insightful and there are even some very darkly funny bits.

So there it is: you know what you’re getting into if you read In the Dream House, but I really think you should. Does it help if I tell you it has an almost implausibly happy ending?