When I finished Very Cold People, I felt my whole body unclench. In the process of reading this creepy coming-of-age tale, I seemed to have trapped a nerve in my shoulder – it’s that tense. It’s a novel in which nothing very much happens for about 100 pages but small objects – Barbie dolls, Girl Scout sashes, bubble gum, nail polish, a knitted scarf – assume vast significance, and small kindnesses feel overwhelming. When a friend tips candy into the hand of the narrator, Ruthie, she says: “I couldn’t believe how much she was giving me. Just giving it to me, when she could have eaten it herself.” Any act of generosity feels too good to be true.
The author of this chilling tale is debut novelist Sarah Manguso, 48, who tried for 20 years to capture the culture of the icy, all-white Massachusetts town of her 1980s childhood in nonfiction, before finally arriving at the spare, elliptical form she uses here. Once home to the wealthiest New England families, the fictional town of Waitsfield has emptied out over the years and yet its residents, with their Mayflower ancestors, are still obsessed with social class. It’s a place of “emotional poverty”, Manguso has said in an interview – a place where “in all of its coldnesses and silences, [it] is ideally set up to protect abusers”.
Although the abuse isn’t explicitly stated until the final chapters, the novel is full of foreboding from the first page. “My parents were liars,” says Ruthie in the opening paragraph, ostensibly because they tried to hide their Jewish and Italian heritage from their neighbours. Yet we know, from the tightly coiled anger of those first sentences, that there must be more to it. It unfolds like a much darker version of Roald Dahl’s Matilda – only told at a glacial speed, with no Miss Honey coming to the rescue.
Ruthie’s father is a cash-strapped accountant and her mother is a depressed housewife. For much of her girlhood, the family is on the edge of poverty, reliant on trips to the dump for school supplies. But her narcissistic mother has delusions of grandeur. Having brought back a discarded wristwatch catalogue, she irons it and places it just askew on the coffee table “as if someone had been reading it and carelessly put it down”.
Ruthie, an only child, carefully (ruthlessly, you could say) catalogues everything she sees and hears, from her mother’s lumpy body in her shiny nightgown to the awkward dinners at the homes of her wealthier school friends. But she doesn’t necessarily understand what she is witnessing.
For most of the novel, the story of abuse exists in its omissions, in what is not being said. In one vignette, Ruthie recalls: “We weren’t that young anymore, but Bee’s father still let her sit on his lap like a child and pretend to drive his sports car. When he drove, he steered the wheel with just his thumbs, to show us that he could.” Only years later does Ruthie understand that all the attention she and her friends received from adult men “was tinged with sex”. Upsetting encounters with prying dads, jolly uncles and lecherous gym teachers are brushed off as rare aberrations, helping to maintain the silence around abuse.
Manguso trained as a poet but gained attention for her unusual autobiographical nonfiction. Her 2017 book, 300 Arguments, was a collection of extremely short aphoristic essays about desire, writing and relationships. Before that, she published Ongoingness (2015), a meditation on the exhaustive diaries she kept for 25 years. She swore she would never write a novel, partly because she couldn’t imagine being able to create characters or dialogue and partly because she held on to the antiquated idea that a novel had to say something sociological and philosophical. It couldn’t just be the story of one girl.
The fragmented, stream-of-consciousness fiction of Sheila Heti and Jenny Offill has clearly helped change the landscape for a writer as skittish as Manguso. Like their novels, Very Cold People is composed of units of writing that are sometimes so short, they feel like wisps of thought. Fans of Gwendoline Riley and Catherine Lacey’s unconventional stories about family and community dysfunction are also likely to appreciate Manguso’s pitiless, minutely observed prose.
But Very Cold People is so different from anything else I’ve read that it feels a bit fatuous to compare it to other works of fiction. We often talk about writers getting under the skin of their characters, but Manguso has a forensic interest in hair follicles, rashes, effluvia and infected cuts. By writing about these girls’ relationships with their bodies, she picks at the scab of generational trauma and shame. It’s a masterclass in unease. I must confess that I was relieved when the novel was over but it was so skilful, so strange and so unique that I suspect it will stay with me for a very long time.