The Body Myth is an ambitious novel that’s full of all sorts of ingredients I like: explorations of health, sickness, loss, love, queerness, non-monogamous and nontraditional relationships, and prickly women. About a disaffected schoolteacher in a fictional city in India whose chance encounter with a young couple in a park leads to an intense, life-altering triad, The Body Myth is drenched in existentialism and Sufism. (The narrator, Mira, is obsessed with Sartre, de Beauvoir, and Foucault, all noticeable influences on Rheea Mukherjee’s writing style.) It ties Western and Eastern philosophies together in intriguing ways, but unfortunately, the end result is too shaggy and oblique for me to recommend it wholeheartedly. I admired this book more than I enjoyed it–but I did admire it very, very much, and I’ll be keeping tabs on Mukherjee’s future work, as well as checking out her previous short story collection, Transit for Beginners.
You can read my full review of The Body Myth below.
The woman was sitting on a park bench in West Point Gardens, where I came every Sunday for a five-kilometer walk. She couldn’t see me, but I had stopped mid-stride to stare at her. I looked at her for three reasons:
(1) her face was twisted in contemplation;
(2) she was wearing a beige kurta with a transparent golden dupatta; and
(3) she was fucking gorgeous.
–from The Body Myth by Rheea Mukherjee
I went through a Jean-Paul Sartre phase. Like The Body Myth’s adrift and grieving narrator, Mira, it happened as a way to cope with one of the most difficult times in my life, when my mental health was in freefall and it was an effort just to stay alive. I read Sartre in a philosophy class and held on for dear life. Existentialism saved my life then, and in a less intense way, it still appeals to me now.
For that reason and many others, I was easily transported to the world of The Body Myth, Rheea Mukherjee’s first novel, which is deeply existentialist fiction in the tradition of Sartre’s own Nausea. It felt a little like visiting an old friend.
Mira is a widowed schoolteacher just going through the motions when she meets young, attractive couple Sara and Rahil in a local park. She witnesses Sara having a seizure–was it a seizure or a performance? We’re left to question that almost immediately–and Rahil rushing to comfort her. The chance encounter blooms into an intense friendship between them and Mira, and very quickly a romantic and sexual love triangle, as well.
Sara is plagued by mysterious illnesses: cramps, arthritis, mouth ulcers, fevers, fatigue, and, of course, seizures. Rahil takes careful care of her. It quickly becomes obvious that Mira has stumbled into a heady, codependent ritual of needing and being needed that has less to do with illness than it does with love and marriage. It’s a ritual that Mira’s presence disturbs forever.
The Body Myth is fascinating. Mukherjee writes like no one else I’ve ever read, accomplishing much more than just updating Sartre for the 21st century. This novel is earthy, frank, surprising, and full of flashes of brilliant, beautiful insight that make me want to sit down and have coffee with Mukherjee someday.
The Body Myth’s ideas about the ways being sick feeds into our universal need to feel loved and cared for particularly interested me. As I’ve written many times on this blog before, I’m chronically ill in ways that have felt very mysterious at times; I was a little nervous to read a novel that so baldly implies that its chronically ill character isn’t “really” sick, but thankfully, Mukherjee takes the premise in a more abstract, thought-provoking direction than merely, she’s faking it.
Perhaps “abstract” is the key descriptor for The Body Myth. I could go on for hours about all the philosophical threads Mukherjee ravels and tugs at–the way she connects Sufism and existentialism was truly moving and mind-blowing to me–but I was less enthused about this novel as fiction than I was about this novel as a big repository of ideas.
In that way, it reminded me of Sorry to Bother You, also a big-repository-of-ideas piece of fiction that was striking and memorable but that I ultimately kind of loathed as a movie. I didn’t come anywhere close to loathing The Body Myth, but its plot machinations felt clunky in the same way as Sorry to Bother You‘s, especially towards the end.
I want a plot to feel like more than just something to hang beautiful prose upon, even in literary fiction, and unfortunately, The Body Myth never quite clears that bar. Its ending especially goes off the rails.
But I still enjoyed it, and I’m still glad I read it. I think a good barometer for whether or not you’ll get something out of The Body Myth is whether or not you enjoy a little navel-gazing in the style of late-night dorm room conversations about the meaning of life, man (but with a women’s studies twist). I love those conversations, even when they get a little ridiculous, and so I was happy to indulge Mukherjee here.
I didn’t love The Body Myth, but I doubt I’ll forget it. This is a unique and startling novel. ★★★☆☆
Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or received during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.
I’m still cleaning out my backlog, so this is another long post. (I seriously need to stop buying/borrowing books. Good gravy.) This week I’ve got a gritty novel about a school shooting, a suburban short story collection, a novel about being sick, a surprising retelling of Robin Hood, and three novels that use fantasy and fiction to interrogate very real-world injustices. Let’s dive in!
“Bloomland opens during finals week at a fictional southern university, when a student walks into the library with his roommate’s semi-automatic rifle and opens fire. When he stops shooting, twelve people are dead.
In this richly textured debut, John Englehardt explores how the origin and aftermath of the shooting impacts the lives of three characters: a disillusioned student, a grieving professor, and a young man whose valuation of fear and disconnection funnels him into the role of the aggressor. As the community wrestles with the fallout, Bloomland interrogates social and cultural dysfunction in a nation where mass violence has become all too familiar.”
why I’m excited: Dzanc Books compared this novel to Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room when they sent an ARC to me, which sold me on Bloomland instantly. (You might remember that I loved The Mars Room.) It’s going to be tough to stomach reading about a school shooting, but it sounds like the emotional payoff will be more than worth it.
Bloomland will be released on September 10th, 2019 and is currently available for pre-order.
Maid Marian doesn’t know how she’ll go on, but the people of Locksley town, persecuted by the Sheriff of Nottingham, need a protector. And the dreadful Guy of Gisborne, the Sheriff’s right hand, wishes to step into Robin’s shoes as Lord of Locksley and Marian’s fiancé.
Who is there to stop them?
Marian never meant to tread in Robin’s footsteps—never intended to stand as a beacon of hope to those awaiting his triumphant return. But with a sweep of his green cloak and the flash of her sword, Marian makes the choice to become her own hero: Robin Hood.”
why I’m excited: Everything about this delights me. Robin Hood isn’t exactly my most cherished myth or legend, but this update to it has me completely hooked. A grieving Maid Marian who’s also a badass? Sign me up. I’ve also heard that this book has a fairly realistic medieval setting, which intrigues me. I like the idea of a non-fantasy-inflected Robin Hood story.
“The Book of Night Women is a sweeping, startling novel, a true tour de force of both voice and storytelling. It is the story of Lilith, born into slavery on a Jamaican sugar plantation at the end of the eighteenth century. Even at her birth, the slave women around her recognize a dark power that they and she will come to both revere and fear.
The Night Women, as they call themselves, have long been plotting a slave revolt, and as Lilith comes of age and reveals the extent of her power, they see her as the key to their plans. But when she begins to understand her own feelings and desires and identity, Lilith starts to push at the edges of what is imaginable for the life of a slave woman in Jamaica, and risks becoming the conspiracy’s weak link.
Lilith’s story overflows with high drama and heartbreak, and life on the plantation is rife with dangerous secrets, unspoken jealousies, inhuman violence, and very human emotion between slave and master, between slave and overseer, and among the slaves themselves. Lilith finds herself at the heart of it all. And all of it told in one of the boldest literary voices to grace the page recently–and the secret of that voice is one of the book’s most intriguing mysteries.”
why I’m excited: I’ve been interested in Marlon James’s work for a long time, but I’m also someone who doesn’t do well with long novels, and both A Brief History of Seven Killingsand Black Leopard, Red Wolfare extremely weighty tomes. The Book of Night Women is a little shorter (448 pages), and its premise is a little more intriguing and approachable to me. I love stories about magical women, especially about the dark side of that magic. This looks intense and gripping.
Odd-mannered, obsessive, withdrawn, Aster has little to offer folks in the way of rebuttal when they call her ogre and freak. She’s used to the names; she only wishes there was more truth to them. If she were truly a monster, as they accuse, she’d be powerful enough to tear down the walls around her until nothing remained of her world, save for stories told around the cookfire.
Aster lives in the low-deck slums of the HSS Matilda, a space vessel organized much like the antebellum South. For generations, the Matilda has ferried the last of humanity to a mythical Promised Land. On its way, the ship’s leaders have imposed harsh moral restrictions and deep indignities on dark-skinned sharecroppers like Aster, who they consider to be less than human.
When the autopsy of Matilda’s sovereign reveals a surprising link between his death and her mother’s suicide some quarter-century before, Aster retraces her mother’s footsteps. Embroiled in a grudge with a brutal overseer and sowing the seeds of civil war, Aster learns there may be a way off the ship if she’s willing to fight for it.
why I’m excited: This is the kind of high concept science fiction novel I’m here for. This sounds like something Octavia Butler might have written. A prickly protagonist, a mystery, social commentary, deep space…I couldn’t ask for more out of a sci-fi novel.
“In The Golem and the Jinni, a chance meeting between mythical beings takes readers on a dazzling journey through cultures in turn-of-the-century New York.
Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life by a disgraced rabbi who dabbles in dark Kabbalistic magic and dies at sea on the voyage from Poland. Chava is unmoored and adrift as the ship arrives in New York harbor in 1899.
Ahmad is a jinni, a being of fire born in the ancient Syrian desert, trapped in an old copper flask, and released in New York City, though still not entirely free.
Ahmad and Chava become unlikely friends and soul mates with a mystical connection. Marvelous and compulsively readable, Helene Wecker’s debut novel The Golem and the Jinni weaves strands of Yiddish and Middle Eastern literature, historical fiction and magical fable, into a wondrously inventive and unforgettable tale.”
why I’m excited: Sorry (not sorry) to mention Octavia Butler twice in one post, but this premise reminds me so much of the immortal love story in Wild Seed, the first of her Patternist series, except with a different cultural twist. This came out in 2013, but it seems like an essential fantasy story for this moment, when Islamophobia and antisemitism are being set up in opposition to each other rather than being seen as interlinked oppressions. Most of all, this book looks fun. I can’t wait to read it.
“Mira is a teacher living in the heart of Suryam–a bustling metropolis and the only place in the world where the fickle Rasagura fruit grows. She lives a quiet life, binge-reading the French existentialists and visiting with her aging father, until the day she witnesses a beautiful woman having a seizure in the park. Mira runs to help even as doubts begin to creep in. Was the seizure real? Or had she glimpsed the woman waiting, until just the right moment, to begin convulsing?
Soon, Mira is drawn into the lives of this mysterious woman, Sara–who suffers a constellation of undiagnosed maladies–and Sara’s kind, intensely supportive husband Rahil. Striking up intimate and volatile friendships with each of them, Mira discovers just how undefinable both illness and love can be.”
why I’m excited: I’m a chronically ill person who’s always interested in reading stories about other people being sick. It’s my life, so it fascinates me. I’m not sure whether chronic illness in this case is taken seriously or if it’s more of a metaphor, but this looks like an interesting novel regardless.
“Writing with incisive nuance and dark humor, Leung enlivens a singular group of characters sharing a new subdivision in the cosmopolitan melting pot of Scarborough, Ontario. The uniformity of the neighborhood is uncanny, with its smooth sidewalks and shiny cars, the streets differing only in their fruit trees–Winifred Street bears crabapples, Maud Street cherries, and Clara Street sour plums.
With teeth clenched behind fake smiles, the residents bear the truth beneath a fast clip of shocking deaths…
When a series of inexplicable suicides begins to haunt the community, no one is more fascinated by the terrible phenomenon than young June. The daughter of Chinese immigrants, she sits hawkeyed at the center, witness to the truth of it all: the hushed affairs, the overt racism, the hidden abuses.”
why I’m excited: I love this kind of suburban fiction, especially when it’s not written by men, especially when it’s written by women of color. This looks sharp and funny and interesting, like a cross between Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng and The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides. It’s a short story collection, but apparently the stories are linked, which is another thing I love. I’m excited!
What’s in your bookbag this week? Do you have any exciting weekend reading plans? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!