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The Book of X tells the tale of Cassie, a girl born with her stomach twisted in the shape of a knot. From childhood with her parents on the family meat farm, to a desk job in the city, to finally experiencing love, she grapples with her body, men, and society, all the while imagining a softer world than the one she is in.
I have been a big fan of Sarah Rose Etter since her first book of short stories, Tongue Party. To say that I love this collection is an understatement. I have read this collection more than any other book and there are certain stories in there, especially “Cake” and “Tongue Party” that I have read aloud to different girls through the years. Their reactions to them were how I gauged them as people. (One girl did say that they were stupid and a waste of time. We did not date after that.) “Tongue Party” is one of the books in my life that has really changed the way that I looked at writing and storytelling.
When The Book of X came out, I bought it immediately. I held it in my hands for a long time before I put it on the shelf. There were eight years between Tongue Party and The Book of X, and there were two reasons why I didn’t want to tear right into it. The first is that I did not want to be disappointed. In my mind, topping the greatness of Tongue Party was almost impossible. The second was that it took many years to get another Sarah Rose Etter book, so if I read this one too quickly, would I have to wait another eight years? I put it off for quite some time. What made me pull it out again and finally read it was the fact that it won the Shirley Jackson Award for Best novel. I knew that my procrastination was us.
I read the entire thing in a day. I mean there are many pages without many words, so the pages move past at a record speed, but the story is so good, so interesting, and so sadly beautiful that I had to know what happened next.
The novel centers around Cassie, a girl born tied in a knot. Her family owns a quarry where they harvest meat and make good money. This does not seem to change the way that Cassie is treated by her peers, and even though she wants to be liked, she also knows that she has a knot and everyone makes fun of her. The novel is written in three separate alternating pieces. The first is the actual story, the second is lists of facts and trivia, and the third is visions. Between the reality and the visions, there are many moments that are just heartbreaking, particularly the moments when Cassie has a life experience that is traumatic or disheartening and the next piece is the vision that starts with the same scene but ends with a more favorable outcome. The pace is fast and even though there are many surreal elements to this, the focus is strong and very narrow. This makes The Book of X much more successful than it could have been. There are many chances where the story could have ran off the rails, but Etter has control the entire time, telling the story that she wants to tell in the way that she wants to tell it. I loved this book, but I don’t think that anything can match my love for her story collection. Tongue Party just has too much history for me that nothing that she does can top it. This does not take away from the fact that Sarah Rose Etter could be one of the top novelists of our generation. I cannot wait to see what she does next.