4/5 stars — a spectacular sophomore novel in which family is the enemy and burying the past doesn’t fix anything
On one hand, I like that Rory Power’s novels are short. Her tight plots and spare yet lyrical prose are suited to this kind of bite-sized book, and this is a length where horror and suspense thrive. However, I would have appreciated another hundred pages or so of Burn Our Bodies Down. I loved almost everything about this story, but it felt incomplete, like there was so much more that could have been explored in plot, character, and setting. Let’s start with the good. First, there’s main character Margot and her complex, conflicted relationship with her mother. As someone who grew up with a mother whose actions were often secretive and irrational and whose past stayed hidden, so much of Margot’s resentment of Josephine rang true. Margot living with and around her mom’s sometimes-dangerous peculiarities hits hard from the first page and its effects impact Margot’s character and the plot for the rest of the book. Watching her grapple with those experiences and begin to understand them as abuses, not something she deserved, was fascinating.
"I shouldn't have had to be strong. Not like that. I should have been able to break. Maybe one day all that strength can just be a gift my mother gave me, and not the tool I used to survive her."
Power plays to her strengths to powerful effect: Burn Our Bodies Down is another contribution to the eco-horror niche, rife with unsettling environmental implications and alarming mutations. There’s also a midwestern gothic element that begins in an obvious place—corn. so much corn—and ripples out into close-knit farm towns, old enmities and interdependences, and an atmosphere you’ll recognize if you’ve ever stood under a summer sky in Nebraska or Illinois. The book is written in first-person. Sensory descriptions and emotions run close to the surface at all times, making the POV deliberately uncomfortable in its level of immersion and immediacy. It’s perfect for the genre…and by perfect, I mean horrifying. This is a novel that uses creeping existential dread as an artistic medium. Now, on to an aspect of the novel I found disappointing. As I mentioned, I felt it was missing something, and I can’t exactly put my finger on what. I stand by wanting an additional hundred pages, but it may also be that I’ve been conditioned to expect YA novels to involve a love interest, and this one didn’t. If your favorite thing about Wilder Girls was the messy relationships, you may be in for a disappointment with Burn Our Bodies Down. Margot is a lesbian, but there’s no romance plot. Normally, I’m all about books—particularly ones with queer characters—that focus on platonic and familial relationships, but I such was a fan of the chaotic, drama-laden relationships in Wilder Girls that I was hoping for more of the same here. And I’m not sure I’ve ever said/written this before, but I actually think a romantic subplot would have added something important to this book. That was a fairly minor quibble against the backdrop of a book that otherwise hit lots of excellent notes for me, and I suspect that I may change my rating to five stars after I sit with my thoughts for a while. One thing I’m sure of is how much I enjoy Power’s writing. Her style and the themes she chooses to focus on continue to fascinate me, while her characters hit painfully but beautifully close to home. If you can stomach a considerable dose of biological grossness, I highly recommend this book!
Content warnings: body horror, death/murder, parental/familial abuse/neglect, gaslighting, vomiting ** I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. **