Book review: With Her Body, by Nicola Griffith

24 12 2016

Nicola Griffith is a  British-born writer of speculative fiction and crime fiction, now living in the USA. I’ve previously reviewed her 1992 debut novel, Ammonite.

withherbody

With Her Body is a slim volume of three novelettes / novellas, published as part of Aqueduct Press’s ‘Conversation Pieces’ series of feminist SF.

‘Touching Fire’ explores the evident attraction between Kate, who serves drinks and sweeps floors at Tallulah’s, a women’s bar, and customer Nadia, whose kinesthetic control is so precise that she is the only human capable of LAOM dancing, a skill so demanding that she has been accorded National Treasure status, and is (almost) always accompanied by armed guards. But Nadia warns Kate that she’s trouble, and not to be trusted … which turns out to be true enough. This is a racy, wrenching piece, urgent yet still reflective.

In ‘Song of Bullfrogs, Cry of Geese’, Molly is an immunologist living in the isolation of an abandoned apartment complex twenty miles out of Atlanta. It’s a world in which ninety-five percent of all people, including her partner Helen, have succumbed to a fatal variant of chronic fatigue syndrome. Under such conditions, what’s the purpose in going on? Suffused by her own grief, her persistent listlessness, and a sense of professional helplessness against an all-consuming foe, Molly struggles to find purchase. This is a closely-observed and effective piece of post-apocalyptic pastoralism.

In ‘Yaguara’, the longest of the chapbook’s stories, photographer Jane Holford travels to a minor archaeological site in Belize to capture images of epigrapher Cleis Fernandez and the Mayan glyphs she is convinced hold an unexpected significance. But the experience pushes Holford well outside her comfort zone: sharing quarters with Fernandez feels claustrophobic; their contact person among the local villagers, Ixbulum, seems taciturn and passively hostile; and the surrounding jungle is full of unfamiliar danger, typified by the silent, steathy jaguar that stalks Jane on her walk back from the dig site one afternoon. Cleis seeks to reassure her that jaguars have never been known to attack humans, but it’s an assurance that, in the circumstances, appears rather hollow, as first Cleis and then Jane seeks to puzzle out the connection between the glyphs and the jaguar.

Each of these stories is vivid, immersive, uncomfortably frank, as Griffith’s heroines grapple with an elusive understanding of The Other. There’s a well-defined physicality to Griffith’s imagery: the book’s title is well-chosen, and equally applicable to each of the three stories. While each undoubtedly qualifies as ‘speculative fiction’, the speculative component is generally reasonably subtle, with a predominant focus on character, and on what it means to be human.

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