Winto a career that includes poetry, memoirs and projects like her 2017 collection of quoted fragments 300 Arguments, American author Sarah Manguso has turned to the novel. Very Cold People is also composed of short paragraphs, compiled as testimony of a young girl named Ruthie as she grows up in the fictional city of Waitsfield, Massachusetts, somewhere near Boston. Ruthie and her family do not belong there, she says in the first sentence; it is a city of people whose ancestors came over with the pilgrims to settle in the fiercely snow-covered part of the new world.
The title’s very cold people refer not only to the inhabitants of this icy region, but to Ruthie’s own parents. At first, they just seem bohemian and frugal, buying her used toys and her clothes at factory outlets, but then we hear about Ruthie’s mother digging a fancy wristwatch catalog out of the landfill, ironing its crumpled covers and displaying it on the coffee table, “just crooked […] as if someone had read it and carelessly put it down, and she corrected its angle when she passed by ”. This is something more than frugality and closer to a pathological need to, in the light of material need, be perceived in a certain way – as directly rich, relaxed. Her mother, the victim in her youth of an unspecified assault, “was the protagonist of everything”; Ruthie remembers being told about her own birth: “said the doctor Oh she’s beautiful […] and my mother had thought he was talking about her ”.
These memories, observed by the child and recalled later by the adult Ruthie, are laid down as clues that accumulate until we get a sense of what we are dealing with: people who mock and neglect their daughter, who pay for her piano lessons and points out so loudly her mistakes, which have been so crushed by their own upbringing that they can not show their daughter any love. “In all my earliest memories, I’m alone in my crib. I have no memories of being held. But I remember closing my eyes in absolute pleasure while my mother stroked my head. She did it more than once. “I asked her to do it again, all the time, and she always said no. What unwanted touch did it remember for her?”
The older Ruthie and her friends get, the more it becomes clear that abuse – not a 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 extraordinary scene, where Ruthie gets the courage to ask her mother what exactly happened to her, she is distracted with monstrous finality: “It was clear to me that what had happened to her was not rare, but normally.” The abuse does not stop at the victim’s body; it seeps down into the generations and sinks down into her children. The “shame” Ruthie feels in her own body as a “birthright” has no separate source. It’s ubiquitous.
The containment and steady tempo of the short sections preserve these fragments as in an ice block. The details of a childhood from the 1980s are the easiest to remember because they are the most colorful and least harmful: friendship bracelets and safety pins with pearls, Lite-Brites and movie nights with rented videos and everything that smells of strawberries – “stickers, lip gloss “hair”. But other memories are harder to articulate because they are more threatening or because they are difficult to put into language. “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 just felt like waiting. “
The small alliances that the “girls from Waitsfield” have created are the novel’s warm, vibrant nervous system. They are waiting together to grow up, or not; to be liberated, to move elsewhere, to commit their own atrocities, or to raise their children with “ordinary love.” But the novel is a testament to the marks that the past has left from generation to generation, and Waitsfield’s cold world offers Manguso the perfect metaphor for it: “The salted snow left white streaks on tiles, and even though you poured hot water over them and scrubbed , as my mother did every spring, the ghosts of winter never completely disappeared. “