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By Lauren Elkin
Sarah Manguso
Sarah Manguso. Photograph: Beowulf Sheehan

Well into a career that encompasses poetry, memoir and projects such as her 2017 collection of quotable fragments 300 Arguments, the American author Sarah Manguso has turned to the novel. Very Cold People is also composed of short sections, compiled like witness testimony by a young girl called Ruthie, as she grows up in the fictional town of Waitsfield, Massachusetts, somewhere near Boston. Ruthie and her family don’t belong there, she tells us in the first sentence; it is a town for people whose ancestors came over with the pilgrims to settle in that violently snowy part of the new world.

The very cold people of the title refers not only to the inhabitants of this icy region, but to Ruthie’s own parents. At the outset they seem merely bohemian and thrifty, buying her toys secondhand and her clothes at factory outlets, but then we hear about Ruthie’s mother dredging a fancy wristwatch catalogue out of the dump, ironing its crumpled cover and displaying it on the coffee table, “just askew […] as if someone had been reading it and carelessly put it down, and she corrected its angle when she walked by”. This is something more than parsimony and closer to a pathological need, in the face of material want, to be perceived in a certain way – as offhandedly rich, casual. Her mother, the victim in her youth of some unspecified assault, “was the protagonist of everything”; Ruthie recalls being told of her own birth: “the doctor said Oh she’s beautiful […] and my mother had thought he was talking about her”.

These memories, observed by the child and recalled later by the adult Ruthie, are laid down like clues that accumulate until we get a sense of what we’re dealing with: people who mock and neglect their daughter, who pay for her piano lessons and then loudly point out her mistakes, who have been so crushed by their own upbringings that they cannot show their daughter any love. “In all of my earliest memories I am alone in my crib. I have no memories of being held. But I do remember closing my eyes in absolute pleasure while my mother stroked my head. Did she do it more than once? I asked her to do it again, all the time, and she always said no. What unwanted touch did it recall for her?”

The older Ruthie and her friends get, the more it becomes clear that abuse – not a word Ruthie ever uses – is one of the motors that powers their small town, inflicted on the children by the people who are supposed to protect them: police officers, teachers, parents, coaches, older siblings. In the extraordinary scene in which Ruthie gets up the courage to ask her mother what exactly happened to her, she is deflected with monstrous finality: “It was clear to me that what had happened to her wasn’t rare but normal.” The abuse doesn’t stop at the victim’s body; it seeps down the generations and sinks into her children. The “shame” Ruthie feels in her own body like a “birthright” has no distinct source. It is omnipresent.

The containment and even pacing of the short sections preserve these fragments as if in a block of ice. The details of a 1980s childhood are the easiest to recall, because they are the most colourful and least harmful: friendship bracelets and beaded safety pins, Lite-Brites and movie nights with rented videos and everything smelling like strawberries – “stickers, lip gloss, hair”. But other memories are harder to articulate, because they are more threatening, or because they’re difficult to put language to. “My life didn’t feel as if it had a wound, or a missing piece, or any of the metaphors we used in group therapy […] It just felt like waiting.”

The small alliances forged by the “girls of Waitsfield” are the warm living nerve system of the novel. They wait together to grow up, or not; to be liberated, to move elsewhere, to commit their own atrocities or to raise their children with “ordinary love”. But the novel is a testament to the marks left by the past from generation to generation, and the frigid world of Waitsfield offers Manguso the perfect metaphor for it: “The salted snow left white lines on the flagstones, and even if you poured hot water over them and scrubbed, as my mother did each spring, those ghosts of winter never quite disappeared.”

• Very Cold People by Sarah Manguso is published by Picador (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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