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Cecilia by K-Ming Chang review – teenage kicks

Cecilia by K-Ming Chang review – teenage kicks

K-Ming Chang’s oppressively sensual, thrillingly disorienting novella of queer love and intimate obsession is narrated by Seven, who is 24 and working as a cleaner in a chiropractor’s office. She works in near isolation, seeing the chiropractor and receptionist only when they pass through the laundry room to use the toilet; she listens “entranced” to their contrasting urination. Seven’s duties include refilling the soap dispenser, “which dribbled like a nosebleed”, gathering “bouquets of dark hair” from patients in the vacuum cleaner, and folding ageing towels that “hung like pigskin over my forearm, clinging directly to my meat, nursing on my heat”. She works in a windowless room, where “it was always warm, and the wet fluorescent light flicked my earlobes with its tongue”. This bodily world is a knot of disgust and desire.

Seven is summoned to clean a treatment room where she finds the patient has remained behind, and she sees “a face I had dusted off in my memory so frequently that seeing it now, in the present, made me wonder if this one was a bootleg, if the original had been destroyed to keep me from corrupting it”. It is Cecilia, a friend from girlhood and the object of her ongoing obsession. After this first re-encounter, Cecilia waits for Seven at the bus stop and they board a bus together, prompting the narrative to unspool into vivid memories from their childhood, the stories they told one another, and their sexual awakening. Their tangled attraction and repulsion play out, reaching a climax of shame.

Cecilia is Chang’s fifth book. An American writer of Taiwanese origin, she was a National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” honoree for her first novel Bestiary in 2020, and followed this with three much-lauded works: Bone House, a micro-chapbook retelling of Wuthering Heights; short-story collection Gods of Want; and the novel Organ Meats. Chang describes Bestiary, Gods of Want and Organ Meats as a “mythic triptych”; Cecilia inhabits this same surreal world.

Alongside Seven and Cecilia’s queer desire, Chang explores mythologies, some created by the two friends and others passed down matrilineally. As girls, Cecilia and Seven told each other stories as a means of understanding their own bodies: “You told me once that all girls are born with a baby in each limb, but only the one in the belly survives, because only that one is fed.” And later, “You say babies are born floating, and that’s why there are umbilical cords attached to them. You’re supposed to hold on to their balloon strings and reel them down and fill their bellies with slugs so that they’ll be heavy enough to sit on their own asses.” Chang pollutes the girls’ innocence with stories and images both repulsive and creative, frightening and empowering.

Seven inherits mythologies from her grandmother and mother. Her mother’s stories, told at night because “they’ve lived so long in the dark of your belly that they can’t ever survive the light outside”, are filled with menace: “heavy son light daughter”, her mother muses as she tells of her own unwanted sister being given away. These dark tales rustle through the pages like the omnipresent scavenging crows, which – according to Seven’s grandmother – bring bad luck.

“I allow the language to lead me and then I hope that ideas will follow,” Chang said in a 2022 interview for the Guardian. In this author’s highly original voice, language writhes into new, ultra-sensual imaginings and leads us into an uncanny world where the familiar is made strange.

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Source: theguardian.com