Non-fiction – memoir; Vintage; 201 pages; 2017. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
First published in 2007, Maggie Nelson’s The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial is a highly original true story that refuses to be pigeon-holed into any single genre. (Not dissimilar, then, to her more recent publication, The Argonauts, which I read earlier in the year.)
In this powerful book, Nelson examines the unsolved murder of the aunt she never knew — her mother’s younger sister, Jane Mixer, was murdered in 1969 — and the reopening of the case following the discovery of new evidence 35 years later.
Part memoir, part true crime, it’s a fiercely intelligent — and sometimes painfully honest — look at the criminal justice system, the use of DNA evidence and the pursuit of justice and redemption. It’s also a frank appraisal of family relationships — of broken marriages, love affairs, adultery and divorce, of sibling love and rivalry, of the two-way connection between parents and their children — and our inability, as a society, to look beyond our obsession with the murder of young women to find a solution to its cause.
Written in a strong, evocative voice, often confessional and occasionally shocking, The Red Parts is a compelling, exhilarating and “unputdownable” read. And, as one would expect given it largely follows a murder trial, there’s a lot of gruesome detail that is confronting and often stomach churning — though never gratuitous.
It brings to mind the likes of Janet Malcolm and Helen Garner, masters of the non-fiction true crime narrative, but with one important difference: this is about the author’s own family, making it feel like a truly intimate account.
By the time the medical examiner is unfurling this towel at the July trial and describing the nature of the “heavy, intense bloodstain” found in its centre, however, the surreal will have given way to the horrible. I may not have known Jane, but I know I share in this blood. So does my mother. So does my sister. I know this every time I see it, and every time I see it I feel like I’m being choked. If asked, I would have described the dense, chaotic, thirty-six-year-old spiral of dried brown blood as one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen. A sorrow beyond dreams.
Before I even began reading The Red Parts, I wondered what would motivate someone to write such a deeply personal story about a family member, to bare one’s soul or to reveal one’s despair and grief in public, as it were. Nelson’s preface (dated 2015) explains that she had been working on a book of poetry about her aunt when the case was unexpectedly reopened.
After attending the suspect’s trial in July 2005, I felt an intense rush to record all the details before being swallowed up, be it by anxiety, grief, amnesia or horror […] One aim I had while writing was to allow the events of the trial, the events of my childhood, the events of Jane’s murder, and the act of writing to share a single spatial and temporal moment.
That aim has been more than achieved in this rather superlative book. It is thought-provoking, hard-hitting, wise and gentle, funny and searing, detached and emotional — all at the same time — and is written in such beautiful, eloquent language (Nelson is also a poet) it has the feel of an impossibly perfect book. As a meditation on violence and its long-lasting effects, it is superb; as an account of one family’s grief, it is profound.