Review by Jason Marc Harris
Laura Maylene Walter’s Body of Stars
Dutton, $26 (368p) ISBN 978-0-593-18305-2
Having known Laura Maylene Walter as a fellow MFA student back in 2013-2014 at Bowling Green State University, I was intrigued to read her book that I’d only read a couple chapters of from a much earlier draft back in workshop. In Body of Stars Celeste and her twin brother Miles are the main characters, and their relationship is an exploration of the power of gender and self-determination. Celeste—like all girls in the world Walter creates—has constellations of moles on her body that predict the future. Miles is determined to be an interpreter of these magical birthmarks, and though as a male, his future is in doubt as an interpreter (it is a profession reserved for females), he insists on access to his sister’s body in ways that some readers have found uncomfortable, although not explicitly incestuous. The ways these twins confide, compete, cooperate, and lie to each other is a microcosm for larger societal interactions between men and women. Body of Stars illuminates how asymmetrical power relationships foster injustice, but also how there can be possible progress from a committed community focused on change.
The book is a compelling dystopian exploration of the ways that women’s bodies and lives are treated, and how young women especially must struggle for an identity that too often must come into conflict with tradition and security. One might designate the book fantasy since the premise is supernaturally arbitrary without logical cause: girls have birthmarks that predict the future. And, there’s a couple of other fantastic elements related to gender and sexuality: when females hit adolescence, they become “changelings” who exude such powerful attractiveness that lustful males must struggle to restrain themselves. The subject of rape survival in a world focused more on protecting men than women is a key part of the book.
Miles resolves to update the authoritative text of interpretation—Mapping the Future—and his goal of amending that text is both a task of redemption and ego aggrandizement. Coming to an understanding with his sister Celeste, is a central feature of their troubled relationship, and a confrontation with the oppressive sexism that underlies the patriarchy that rules the world that they inhabit. A rather Orwellian “Office of the Future” lurks in the background, but it is a rather inept antagonistic bureaucracy, though threatening enough to trigger some plot twists.
Thus, the subject itself—of how women through their bodies are subject to bureaucratic control—though it uses a magical vehicle in a putative dystopia is all too close to our painful reality. As Ursula Le Guin notes in the afterword to book two of the Earthsea series The Tombs Of Atuan, for her “fantasy isn’t wishful thinking, but a way of reflecting, and reflecting on reality.” Body of Stars is such a fantasy. The CDC still reports that one in five women suffers rape or attempted rape and one in three of women who are raped are raped during the ages of 11-17. Meanwhile, patriarchal control continues to reign in the government and bureaucracies. Texas’s governor has decreed women may no longer get an abortion after six weeks of pregnancy (many women are still unaware they are pregnant at that date); Texas also requires unmarried young women under the age of eighteen to get written permission from their parents to get an abortion. And the United States Supreme Court is about to take up a case concerning an abortion ban in Mississippi—the case is expected to have repercussions in other conservative states as well. Aside from authoritarian interference with reproductive rights, the issues of inequality that American women also face are legion, and Body of Stars explores the harassment of women who have been raped and subsequent bullying by both men and women in the form of “slut-shaming.” Walter’s dystopian narrative is a simulacrum of our modern world and in the tradition of works such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. The story even includes a metafictional gesture towards the experience a reader of Body of Stars is likely to have— in chapter 26 Celeste “read[s] a fantasy novel about a society in which markings didn’t exist—no one could predict the future.”
Perhaps because part of Walter’s point is that there is no finding justice all too often in our own world against male predation, there are few steps towards retribution in the novel. However, given Celeste’s later confidence about reducing the number of abductions, it is unclear why she would not be stirred also to pursue fuller identification and revenge. Or why not her brother Miles who drew a picture of the culprit? Or her parents whose business and reputation was impacted as well as their feelings? What technology might exist like facial recognition to pursue the rapist? Celeste’s memories are accessed through a drug, which makes her testimony questionable, but those memories also could have been enhanced by the “high lucidity” of her changeling phase—perhaps thereby drawing further meaning from that fragile but powerful state? We are given, for example a series of precise sensory observations during Celeste’s experience of “high lucidity”: the rustle of leaves [. . .] a wisp of old bleach in the bathroom”—something like these elements might have served as clues for tracking down the nameless antagonist. The face of her rapist is eventually aestheticized into a drawing by Miles at Celeste’s directions, but the drawing itself does not lead anywhere. That is likely precisely the point: even with evidence women may face deadends as far as the pursuit of justice regarding sexual assault. Body of Stars conveys the feeling of being overwhelmed without avenue of redress, so these questions of vengeance and justice are somewhat beside the point of the worldbuilding. Nevertheless, the characters’ behavior being rather limited to a dystopian despair and passivity does make for some challenging narrative pacing for the main characters, whose focus becomes more on healing and gradual societal remediation rather than open conflict; meanwhile, the bureaucracy itself seems to dither and take little action either, which to some degree alleviates tension and forward momentum.
I would have liked to have seen more of the bureaucracy at work—and in particular who was calling the shots of the Office of the Future: who were these patriarchs pulling the strings of freckled divination? Had no one sought out the reason for the magical premise of this world’s gendered fate? How could it possibly have been—and when did it start—this matter of women having constellations of moles to tell how their lives would go? Again, the lack of inquiry, may be intended to reinforce the numb conformity of gendered traditions, but it also is a mystery that someone would be likely to at least consider investigating. The Office of the Future seems a bit bumbling or Kafkaesque rather than overwhelmingly Orwellian in their red tape, as though it might take quite a while for Miles to really be under threat, and the inspector who visits appears to almost be a sympathizer to the work Julia and Celeste are now doing rather than a motivated antagonist. She is part of the system but not an eager participant in that system.
In terms of story structure, Body of Stars employs a retrospective first-person narrator in the form of Celeste’s voice, with occasional reflected comments about what mistakes were made by specific characters at crucial moments in the plot. In addition to the main narrative text, there are intriguing well-designed diagrams inserted between chapters about interpreting the marks on female bodies that are meant to be excerpts from the authoritative text “Mapping the Future: An Interpretative Guide to Women and Girls.” This is a great visual feature of worldbuilding, and such elements could be adapted to a comic or film. Lastly, there are some excerpts of mythic tales told to the young women survivors at The Mountain school, as well as letters from Miles to Celeste, and a few formally phrased memorandums.
The sentence-level is clear and vivid, as if Walter can tap into “high lucidity” herself to observe “the shadowy space with the dirt floor and beams furred with cobwebs” and “the dust motes ringing” the head of Miles “like an ethereal crown.” The acuity of this description is impressive and memorably phrased, as well as rather prescient as to the plot’s development surrounding their vulnerable relationship as brother and sister. Light serves as a metaphor in the mythic tales too, such as the nameless girl who experiences apotheosis and “is the world and the sea and the sky. She is cracked open like the rock that bore her, and the brightness that spills out is a gift she offers her sisters now and for all of time—luminous streams of loss and light.”
Loss and light are the thematic watchwords of Body of Stars. The narrative manifests painful ways of seeing, which offers readers glimpses of brilliant gossamer futures despite the shadows, blurry dust motes, and dirt of the present. Troubled as it is by deception, rage, resentment, and grief, the rapport presented by the twin siblings of Miles and Celeste embodies a memorable model of gender trouble and a redemptive vision of where we might go from here.
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