A short story I recently read

‘Help Me Follow My Sister to the Land of the Dead’, by Carmen Maria Machado

Read it here in about 25 minutes.

Thinking about form and structure… 

I’ve fallen madly in love with Carmen Maria Machado’s writing ever since reading ‘The Husband Stitch’, which led me to read her debut short story collection, which led me to hunt down her earlier work, which is how I found this short story.

I love it when authors play with form and structure. In two of the stories in ‘Her Body and other Parties’, Machado’s playfulness is especially inventive: ‘Inventory’ is a record of the protagonist’s sexual encounters throughout her life, while in the background a virus sweeps the world away (she was going for realism, not irony, but, as we now know, sex with someone you don’t live with is banned during a pandemic); and ‘Especially Heinous’, which presents as multiple summaries of episodes of a TV crime show.

Similarly, ‘Help Me Follow’ takes the form of a report written by protagonist Ursula Ruiz, detailing a crowdfunding project that aims to bring her sister back from the land of the dead, where she has ‘absconded to’ through a portal, simply because she’s a rebel.

Reading through the sections of the report, we first get the backstory of two sisters who aren’t close, but are nonetheless bound by blood, then we learn why Ursula needs to retrieve her sister. There’s a breakdown of the amount Ursula needs for the project, which involves performing magic spells and paying to cross through the nearest portal. The risks are briefly detailed; briefly, as there’s only one, and it’s deadly. There’s a helpful FAQ section. Then we have a diary-type section, which is periodically updated with posts throughout Ursula’s journey – she hasn’t achieved her fundraising amount, but is making the journey, regardless. As this is an online fundraising project, we also have posts from other people who support the project, including Olive, the sister stuck in the land of the dead, which we’re told about before we read, due to their placement at the bottom of the page.

The story is structured so that it’s the posts at the end of the report, made by Olive, and Ursula’s friend Lucille, that reveal the truth. Also, as per some of Machado’s other stories, there’s a hint of something terrible having occurred in the protagonist’s past; something unsaid. Poor Ursula.

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