“In fourth grade we played hard. The fifth-grade girls played four square, too, but they didn't jeer at each other when they played, and they hit the ball gently from square to square. Their slowness seemed deliberate, as if they were dancing. Their skirts brushed slowly against their knees as they swayed. It wasn't so much that they looked different; they just looked as if they knew they were being watched.”
The opening chapter of Sarah Manguso's Very Cold People invites us into a town with a lot of personality though not a lot going on. There is a clear class divide between our narrator and the rich people on the other side of town and she talks about going to the part of town where everyone has plaques on their houses adverts were filmed. This dreamy hallmark-esque setting is different to where she lives. She lives in the poorer part of town where the car sometimes won't start and the children eat icicles in the winter, where the mother uses just enough cling film to cover a bowl and layering up replaces heating most of the time. Though, her parents don't talk to the neighbours and there is a lack of awareness of anything that happens outside the narrator's own little world - this story becomes interesting very quickly.
Many people will complain about the fact that this story is told in an unremarkable way. I will say this to you now, I did not like this either - but putting aside personal taste, I think that this might have been the entire point. Various darkly coloured descriptions often involving slaughter or dead animals tie up the story with the narrator's state of mind. It is pretty weird and twisted when you sit down to think about it, the way the blank language actually adds to the story.
I think that the main disadvantage to this book is that this bland way of writing is continued for so long that it almost becomes boring to read even in the tense moments of the text. However, it did not make the text impossible. I think it was meant to feel tiring at times and so, I give it the benefit of the doubt.
I liked the depiction of class divide quite a bit. The way we could definitely see the people who were clearly more well-off compared to our narrator, Ruth, who was very clearly not. From drinking powdered milk and the fact that even when a little bit of money does come in, the parents of Ruth still do not know what to do. There is a certain amount of frugality that I respect in the parents but then again, for Ruth, does feel slightly more abusive than caring. Denying her basic necessities so that she goes an eats the icicles of dirty water from the outside rather than staying at home and having nice food.
The struggle doesn't stop there. This monetary struggle is reflected in the fact that her mother is quite cold and unsupportive of her daughter - almsot ignoring her most of the time. While Ruth struggles to make friends, struggles with keeping friends and struggles with everything to do with school, she also realises that her mother is not really there for her as she is focused on more important things (that she thinks are more important). I loved this depiction of the breakdown of the mother-daughter structure through the fact that they do not have enough money and the trauma that her mother experiences at the hands of her non-Jewish relatives. There is always something rumbling beneath like a volcano about the explode.
I thought this book was very clever and though it is not really written in the way I would like it to be, I respect the fact that the author was trying something more experimental. I would definitely recommend this book because of its simplistic, yet in-depth depictions of inherited traumas where the older generation rub their own sadnesses off on to the younger ones by mistreating them, ignoring them and not meeting their needs. It is a fascinating book and the language within the book proves that the author has definitely thought about those images and thought carefully.