She was overburdened with her thoughts. A wish for comfort, for palm against palm and fingers latched. No one ever knew how to give her it. What could she want, given that she seemed to everyone a pretty cactus or a thistle pitched all by itself among the rocks, casting a twisted shadow.
We meet Sarah at the top of the Empire State building. Her mother, who was back in Cornwall, has died of cancer; she’s lost her job, and her married lover has ended their affair after her husband found out about it.
And all she was was an émigré deadmother wifefucker in pieces, spines, vibrating at an awful screeching pitch.
From there, to the Empire State building. From there, her pieces sent out to be hopeful and reformative – somewhere other.
Sarah does the American thing and sets off on a road trip, by Greyhound bus, to the cabin her mother owned in the middle of nowhere, New Mexico.
Between encounters with a range of other passengers and Sarah’s thoughts about her current situation, we learn about Sarah’s relationship with her artist mother. Her mother was fleetingly famous and verbally cruel. She used the mixed-race Sarah as a model for her paintings but always rendered the girl as a typical English rose. Her behaviour, of course, had an impact on Sarah:
And you try not to remember how on another day it was the same stillness, creation-new. And how Lucy’s face had turned in the moments after you cut open your mother’s hand. Pillow blood, sheet blood. Cousin Lucy very still as Maud woke shrieking and gasping.
When Sarah arrives at the cabin, she becomes entangled with Theo, the young man who lives with his mother in the nearest cabin. As their relationship progresses, Sarah tries to reconcile herself with who she is.
McClory describes the book as a novel told in flash fiction: none of the chapters exceed 1000 words. This allows for the story to be told in snapshots and for a range of thoughts, ideas and events to be covered – we get Sarah’s views on art, guns, footnotes, the hierarchy of pain and much more. It also means that the writing is taught and condensed, moving between the poetic and the blunt. Often it is funny, quite often at the expense of mediocre men.
What really makes Flesh of the Peach stand out though is its unflinching portrayal of a young woman being messy and unpredictable and human. Some of her behaviour is appalling but it feels like the behaviour of someone trying to find out who they are and why that’s who they’ve become. How do you come to terms with the death of your self-centered mother? How do you rebuild a life when every part of it seems to have broken at the same time?
Flesh of the Peach is refreshing: as a road trip novel with a female protagonist, as a combination of short and long form prose writing, as a portrait of a woman.
I interviewed Helen McClory about the novel. We discussed unlikeable female protagonists, road trips and flash fiction.
Thanks to Helen McClory for the interview and to Freight Books for the review copy.