WIn a career that spans poetry, memoirs, and projects like her 2017 quotable collection 300 Arguments, American author Sarah Manguso has turned to the novel. Very Cold People is also made up of short sections, compiled as the testimony of a young woman named Ruthie growing up in the fictional town of Waitsfield, Massachusetts, somewhere near Boston. Ruthie and her family don’t belong there, she tells us in the first sentence; it is a town of people whose ancestors came with the pilgrims to settle in that wildly snowy part of the new world.
The very cold people in the title refer not only to the inhabitants of this frigid region, but to Ruthie’s own parents. At first they seem just bohemian and thrifty, buying their second-hand toys and clothes from factory outlets, but then we hear Ruthie’s mother pull a fancy wristwatch catalog out of the trash can, iron the wrinkled cover, and display it on the coffee table, “Simply crooked […] as if someone had been reading it and inadvertently put it down, and she corrected her angle as she passed.” This is something more than parsimony and closer to a pathological need, in the face of material lack, to be perceived in a certain way: as carelessly rich, casual. Her mother, a victim in her youth of some unspecified aggression, “was the protagonist of everything”; Ruthie remembers being told about her own birth: “the doctor said oh she is beautiful […] and my mother had thought he was talking about her.”
These memories, observed by the child and recalled later by the adult Ruthie, set out as clues that accumulate until we have an idea of what we are dealing with: people making fun of and neglecting her daughter, paying for her piano lessons. and then point out out loud their mistakes, that they have been so crushed by their own upbringing that they cannot show their daughter any love. “In all my earliest memories I am alone in my crib. I have no recollection of being held. But I do remember closing my eyes with utter delight as my mother stroked my head. Did she do it more than once? I asked her to do it again, every time, and she always said no. What unwanted touch did he remember for her?
As Ruthie and her friends age, it becomes clearer that abuse, not a single word Ruthie ever uses, is one of the engines that drives their small town, inflicted on the children by the people who are supposed to protect them. : police officers. , teachers, parents, coaches, older siblings. In the remarkable scene where Ruthie works up the courage to ask her mother what exactly happened to her, she deflects with monstrous firmness: “It became clear to me that what had happened to her was not weird but normal.” The abuse does not stop at the victim’s body; it filters down from generation to generation and sinks into her children. The “shame” that Ruthie feels in her own body as a “birthright” has no definite origin. is ubiquitous
The containment and even pacing of the short sections preserves these fragments like a block of ice. The details of an ’80s childhood are the easiest to remember, because they’re the most colorful and least damaging: beaded friendship bracelets and safety pins, Lite-Brites and movie nights with rented videos and everything smelling like strawberries. : “stickers, lip gloss, hair”. But other memories are more difficult to articulate, because they are more threatening or because it is difficult to put language into them. “My life did not feel like it had a wound, or a missing piece, or any of the metaphors we used in group therapy […] it felt like waiting for.”
The little alliances forged by the “Waitsfield girls” are the warm living nervous system of the novel. They wait together to grow, or not; be released, move to another place, commit their own atrocities or raise their children with “ordinary love”. But the novel is a testament to the marks the past has left from generation to generation, and the frigid world of Waitsfield offers Manguso the perfect metaphor for it: “The salty snow left white lines on the flagstones, and even if you poured water warm on them and scrubbing, as my mother did every spring, those ghosts of winter never quite disappeared.