I came to Rory Power’s Burn Our Bodies Down not having read her first book Wilder Girls (it’s on my TBR), but knowing that it is an eco-horror, feminist novel. That set my expectation that this novel would similarly take up environmental themes, but I kept waiting and waiting for them. When the eco-horror finally hit, boy did it.
Burn Our Bodies Down reminds me of an episode of The Twilight Zone in that it drops the reader into a situation-in-progress that seems tense, not unusual, but as the story unfolds and the context grows, the circumstances get stranger and stranger. To me, that made the first three-fourths of the novel a pretty middle-grade YA mystery. It was not until the last quarter that the book really took off.
The book focuses on Margot, the only child of a difficult, emotionally withholding single mother who has never told her anything about her father, grandparents, or where she came from. On the verge of turning 18, Margot is determined to find out where she comes from. When she uncovers clues that lead her to her grandmother’s farm, however, she wonders if her mother was keeping her away for good reason.
The tension between Margot and her mother, Josephine, is the least compelling part of the story. The source of their tension is pretty vague and the angst Margot feels about it very well may resonate more with younger readers than it did with me. Josephine is also one of the lesser developed characters in the novel, especially as we see her only through the filter of Margot’s heightened emotions about her.
The mystery comes together at a slow burn that kept me reading quickly to find out where exactly it was all going. There are plenty of strange twists and clues, but I was relatively surprised when the final twist came. Given all the breadcrumbs along the way, I thought that the twist ending was well-written and earned. I was very satisfied with the book’s end.
For more, including spoilers, keep reading…
So, back to that Twilight Zone vibe, it turns out that Margot doesn’t have a father, she and her mother were both asexually reproduced due to chemicals that her grandmother, Vera, used on the land to boost its fertility building up in her system. It turns out the strong family resemblance between the women is really because they are all copies of Vera herself. Over time, the land started producing carbon copies of Vera on its own, but these copies degenerated over time, unlike those that were born of flesh. It is a weird, but satisfying twist tapping into issues around the effects agricultural chemicals have on the environment and the people in it. My mind started to drift toward Silent Spring.
I think the theme of fertility and family is also deployed interestingly as the violence that happens within the family is tied to this monstrous mystery, but also guilt, self-loathing, and isolation. On top of the intriguing environmental issues in the story, there are also some great psychological twists.
Overall, I really enjoyed this book. It started out a lot stronger than it started, which made persevering through some of the early parts that I didn’t connect with well worth it.