BOOK REVIEW: The Fact of a Body

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The Fact of a Body
By Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich
Out now from Macmillan
£20 hardback; £16.99 eBook

As a story, this is spellbinding. As a feat of engineering, it is a marvel that everyone who writes should study carefully. Comparisons abound. Here are two of mine: The Fact of a Body reminded me of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, and Rene Denfeld’s novel The Enchanted. I suspect it has commonalities with James Ellroy’s memoir, My Dark Places, and Maggie Nelson’s The Red Parts (neither of which I’ve read; the latter was recommended to me by Denise Mina via Twitter).

The Fact of a Body is a combined memoir / true crime story. What’s astonishing is that the crime in question involved other people in another place, and had nothing to do with Marzano-Lesnevich’s family or friends.

Yet straightaway we learn that the crime has everything to do with the author, who skilfully meshes her stories like halves of a zipper. Once the elements are engaged it’s nearly impossible to imagine them as separate entities. Even so, tease them apart again and each is distinct.

The Fact of a Body is about families and secrets, about sexual predators, about the way patterns repeat over generations. It’s about the myriad circumstances that contribute to one damaged person’s ability to thrive (eventually) versus another’s ultimate disintegration.

On one side of the tape is the murder of six-year-old Jeremy Guillory, and the story of his killer, pedophile Ricky Langley. The other side is a slow unpicking of the author’s family history, containing eerie parallels that explain why this case, in particular, would not let her rest when she was a law student. There’s a good interview in Vogue, explaining a lot of this.

Things Marzano-Lesnevich gets right:

Pacing: the tension is palpable and unrelenting. Every chapter ending will make you go, “Oh my god, what next?” and turn the page until there are no more to turn. (I inhaled this in a day.)

The account of her abuse — and her parents’ decision to sweep it under the carpet — is devastating, but her retelling never feels self-indulgent.

There are dozens of stories within stories, and each is compelling. Her curiosity and research have been comprehensive and thorough, but rather than sinking under the weight of this information, The Fact of a Body is buoyant.

It’s a stark reminder that even now, in the United States, people live in grinding poverty, which forces them to make terrifying compromises and endure the seemingly unimaginable.

Empathy abounds — for victims and criminals, making for a stirring read.

Wait, you’re thinking, she hasn’t described the story or offered a potted precis, as is typical in book reviews. Damn straight. It’s too complicated and sublime. Trust me, when I say rush to the library or your favourite bookstore and get hold of The Fact of a Body. Trust me when I tell you that this is one helluva story, incredibly well told.

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4 Responses to BOOK REVIEW: The Fact of a Body

  1. Lipgloss and Wellies says:

    I recently read an extract from this novel on Longreads (a terrific source of thought-provoking long-form essays and journalism, by the way) and was blown away by it. It has so much perfectly-paced, nuanced and structured power. The amount of descriptive detail which Marzano-Lesnevich includes is perfectly pitched, with the immediacy of a photograph and yet adding a deceptively relaxed air to the narrative of mounting menace. You know right away that something terrible has happened, but the writing compels you to find out how and why. The story addresses one of our biggest fears – the safety (or not) of our children. Although, in the Vogue interview you link to, Marzano-Lesnevich describes writing the book as therapeutic, I do wonder how much closure the reader may expect to get at the end. And I imagine there will be many readers left feeling glad that we – and our juries – no longer have to wrestle with conscience and the death penalty, here in Britain.

    • It’s a terrific book, despite the disturbing subject matter. It’s nonfiction, though, not a novel. I am not sure if the reader’s meant to have closure or not. I admire the hell out of this book. Thanks for reading, commenting, etc! L

      • Lipgloss and Wellies says:

        I don’t know why I typed ‘novel’. I know perfectly well that it is nonfiction. Oops!

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