As a poet and nonfiction writer, Sarah Manguso is known for her gifts of compression. In 2017’s 300 Arguments—a work consisting of short, aphoristic sections of prose—she writes, “I don’t write long forms because I’m not interested in artificial deceleration. As soon as I see the glimmer of a consequence, I pull the trigger.” Considering this stance, can a writer celebrated as a miniaturist succeed at a more expansive form like the novel? In Manguso’s case, the answer is a resounding yes.
Very Cold People is set in a very cold place, the fictional town of Waitsfield, Massachusetts. In the novel’s early pages the short blocks of text replicate the emerging consciousness of a young child, focused on the sensory and material world, but these details gradually cohere into a larger, sociological view of her surroundings. Our narrator, Ruthie, is of Italian and Jewish ancestry and feels herself to be an interloper in a town where “[r]eal history was about Cabots and Lowells and Pilgrims and Indians.” Her family is poor enough that they make weekly trips to scavenge for small treasures at the local dump. They are better off than the town’s poorest residents who live in a block of apartment projects, but a far cry from the rich who live in stately Victorians with plaques marking the names of their former owners.
The coldness of the title seems at first like a reference to stereotypical New England reserve, but, as the novel progresses, it proves to be something more sinister. Kindness is so foreign to Ruthie that when a friend’s father helps her fix a tangled bike chain, she finds herself close to tears. Ruthie’s childhood is largely loveless, dominated by a mother who seems to have no self-love and is incapable of giving any to her daughter:
“In all of my earliest memories I am alone in my crib. I have no memories of being held. But I do remember closing my eyes in absolute pleasure while my mother stroked my head. Did she do it more than once? I asked her to do it again, all the time, and she always said no. What unwanted touch did it recall for her?”
Ruthie intuits the sexual abuse that her mother must have suffered, but she grows up in a house where the truth is never spoken: “What had happened to her was too horrible to say, so she never said it.” It’s in passages about her mother that Ruthie’s austere narration gives way at times to real anger. Ruthie finds herself “waiting” for a chance to escape from the gothic constriction of her circumstances.
The specter of sexual abuse haunts the novel. As Ruthie enters high school, Waitsfield proves to hold nothing but horror for her and the other young women in her circle. One friend endures sexual abuse from her father resulting in pregnancy; another commits suicide. The reader understands that this is a story about escape in which the narrator must grow into the person capable of writing this story. “My father never touched me, and maybe that was the improvement on her own childhood that my mother had been satisfied with,” Ruthie concludes. It’s cold comfort that, in Ruthie’s world, this seems to constitute a happy ending.
The bleakness of Manguso’s vision is tempered by a rigorous attention to style; as dark as its subject matter is, I found myself turning pages because I wanted to keep reading Manguso’s pared-down prose, with its immaculate attention to the telling details. In this way, like much of Manguso’s other work, Very Cold People is also an argument for the power of art, for the struggle to find a form that can hold and transform the protagonist’s suffering. If at times a certain austerity seems to hold the reader at arm’s length, the beauty of Manguso’s prose keeps pulling us back in.
Very Cold People is a coming-of-age novel set in a very specific time and place that feels universal in its explication of troubled girlhood; it feels, in short, like an instant classic.
Very Cold People
By Sarah Manguso
Published February 08, 2022