“Keep a fire burning; a fire is what saves you. The first, the last, the heart of them all.”
Burn Our Bodies Down is nothing short of a mindfuck. What an odd, serpentine novel full of inherited secrets, unexpected body horror, and multigenerational mother-daughter tensions. It’s one of those books where nothing is obviously wrong for a lot of it, but you know for a fact that something is about to strike. And then, when everything goes up in flames and you turn the final page, you’re left feeling confused and hollowed out. I felt like I had a hangover after reading this book, but like, in a good way.
What is this book about?
Margot knows her mother, Josephine, is keeping secrets from her. Is her father out there? Does she have any other living family besides Jo? When Margot starts poking around for any information about Jo’s past, she learns a whole lot more than just who her family is.
This book is for you if you’re about dysfunctional mother-daughter relationships, Midwestern horror involving corn and various crops, and intricate plot twists.
Content warnings from the author’s website: “Fire. Emotional abuse by a parent, including gaslighting. Familial and generational abuse. Nonconsensual pregnancy – note, no sexual assault or rape. Body horror, some gore, blood (lighter, relative to Wilder Girls). Death. On page character death. Child/infant death (takes place off page but implied violence – pages 301 and 308 in the print ARC). Off-page gun violence. Emesis (mention of vomiting).”
Rep: lesbian main character, sapphic side character
Burn Our Bodies Down is a summer book. Humidity radiates from every page. You can feel the sticky discomfort of a Midwestern summer, even if you’ve never experienced one. Everything is bright, and hot, and washed out in the way only summer memories feel. Oh, and also, there’s corn and fire everywhere. But corn and fire notwithstanding, the worldbuilding beyond the summery aesthetic and atmosphere is on point. The fictional town of Phalene, Nebraska is so clearly established that I wouldn’t doubt it if someone told me it was a real town. And more than that, it was a perfect setting for the plot.
There’s something about Rory Power’s writing style that makes every word sink its teeth right into you. She offers equal parts crisp and eloquent descriptions, but never superfluously. In flux with what little information you’re given (Hemingway’s iceberg theory comes to mind), this novel is airtight. Every detail is necessary to understand the characters, tone, and plot, and all of the elements work together flawlessly. Even when it didn’t seem like much was actively happening, I was never bored—it just aligns with the summer haze hanging over everything. Because you’re always just as in the dark as Margot is, it makes each of her discoveries exciting. You might think that you know what’s going on, but I promise that you don’t—but you also won’t be entirely suspended in confusion while reading. (For the most part.) The confusion only fueled my momentum while devouring this book; I wanted to figure out the truth (almost) as badly as Margot does.
My favorite thing about Burn Our Bodies Down—and Rory Power’s books in general—is her ability to craft works of such subtle horror. This doesn’t appear to be anything more than a somewhat confusing mystery until you realize that you’re neck deep in a horror novel filled with all sorts of different horror elements: secrets, body horror, murder, corn… the usual. Adding to the horror of it all, you never know who to trust—besides maybe Margot—and you’re aware that you’re not getting the whole truth from any of the characters.
I also especially liked that Margot acknowledges her sexuality, but the romantic subplot is nothing more than just that: a subplot. Margot is simply a lesbian protagonist and it’s not made to be a big deal. Having a romantic thread wouldn’t have made sense with the plot or added anything meaningful to it beyond having a sapphic couple for the sake of romance, and I appreciate Power sticking with it even though romance tends to be a staple of the YA genre.
Overall… Every element of Burn Our Bodies Down ties together perfectly: the secrets passed down from Vera to Josephine that Margot eventually discovers, the creepy family farm, the cause behind the entire problem, Margot’s deep-rooted issues with her mother and her issues with her mother. This was a deeply unsettling and fun summer read. (And also, I think Rory Power may be a new favorite author of mine.)
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