What makes Machado’s memoir so distinctive is not just its inventiveness but its unflinching honesty – about the indignities of abuse, about the vulnerability of growing up feeling fat and therefore feeling “grateful for anything you can get” and also about bodily desires. “The diagnosis never changes,” she writes. “We will always be hungry, we will always want. Our bodies and minds will always crave something, even if we don’t recognise it.”
For all the horror, In the Dream House is a ravishingly beautiful book, a tender, incandescent memoir like no other. There’s no doubt that Machado is one of the brightest literary talents around.
In painful, discursive style, with short, densely packed chapters (frequently so brief they read like vignettes), Machado deconstructs the dream house (alternately a fairy-tale castle, or a prison, but never a home) both as the setting in which the relationship took place and as the blood and bones of the relationship itself. It dominates each section title – “Dream House As Memory Palace”, “Dream House as Soap Opera”, “Dream House as Diagnosis”, and so on – using objectivity, legal cases, literature and analysis as a means for Machado to rebuild herself. This dismantling and reassembling also acts as a form of therapy. In case this sounds too much like severe sociological tract, Machado’s approach is as compelling as any thriller, playful in its self-discovery, and intriguing in its references to, for example, the stereotyped villainesses of Disney films, such as Cruella de Vil.
But perhaps the most striking and disconcerting aspect of Machado’s story of her life is that it’s written in the second person. Revealing herself in searing honesty, she is utterly vulnerable in the prose she creates, and yet, because that second person prose addresses her reader directly, we are utterly immersed in her world, so much so that her world becomes ours. There is bravery in her endeavour, in honestly questioning how much an intimate, romantic and traumatic story can be told; how she herself can be trusted to tell a tale that has been told so many times before but that changes with every retelling. This leads to a literal and literary rummage through a toolbox of techniques and perspectives as Machado attempts with each chapter to find the right way to tell the story of her enchantment.