Very Cold People by Sarah Manguso: ‘I felt indistinct, like someone else’s dream’  

Cover image for Very Cold People by Sarah MangusoBoth its blurb and that empty chair on its cover warned me that Sarah Manguso’s Very Cold People was likely to be a bleak read but it was also what attracted me to this brief novella. Set in a small New England town, buttoned up and demarcated between rich and poor, Very Cold People sees a woman explore her childhood, brought up by two people desperately ill equipped for the job.

I knew that children were supposed to ride bikes for fun, and I dutifully played the part of a child having fun

Ruth’s father is an accountant, looked down upon by families secure in their beautifully kept historic houses. Her mother is a housewife whose full-time job is making ends meet. Nothing is new in their household, even the food needs to be chosen carefully, and Ruth doesn’t know what to do with the only new toy she’s given. Meals with her mother’s rich relatives are fraught, the family firmly labelled as poor relations. Her parents frequently row, both in a perpetual state of irritation turning to anger at the slightest opportunity. Affection is rare, and when it happens isn’t repeated no matter how much Ruth begs for it. School offers some sort of respite with its opportunity to make friends but that doesn’t come easily to Ruth. As the years wear one, Ruth begins to understand why her mother is the way she is and seeks a way out for herself.

I remember the metallic smell of it in the air before it fell. The pale blue of it on a clear morning. The cold fuh of it falling. The powder of the coldest days, too cold to melt, squeaking at the boot

Manguso’s novella is written from Ruth’s perspective in cool, crisp, clean prose from which vivid descriptions occasionally shine out together with glimmers of deadpan humour. It offers the reader a detachment from Ruth’s devastating account of her childhood which mirrors her own detachment as a child brought up in a household where love and affection barely exist. She must learn how to be with other people; adopting her mother’s superior tone earns her nothing but isolation. She draws troubled girls struggling with their own family difficulties to her. You might wonder why I chose to stick with this joyless story in which abuse raises its head at every turn but the writing is extraordinarily good. I found myself jotting down quotes constantly. And it does end with hope. If it’s a comfort read you’re after best look elsewhere but if it’s a striking piece of writing, fearless in its approach to a theme which can sometimes be clumsily handled, I’d add it to your list.

Picador Books: London 9781529055283 208 pages Hardback (read via NetGalley)

15 thoughts on “Very Cold People by Sarah Manguso: ‘I felt indistinct, like someone else’s dream’  ”

  1. jenniferbeworr

    Wow wow wow, this is one I really hope to get to. It couldn’t really be more up my alley. How painfully slowly I read! A really enticing review…

  2. Sounds like a hard one to read, but am glad the writing was excellent and it ended on a hopeful note, something I’m realising the importance of more and more

  3. I’m glad to hear you liked this one. I had a mixed reaction to her book 300 Arguments but do really like the sound of this. One I think I’ll line up for Novellas in November.

  4. I can see why this would be bleak, your description of joyless seems very apt. Glad to hear the writing lifts it, and the cover is lovely too.

    1. Thank you for posting this wonderful article, i don’t know what i feel or my emotions. I am looking forward to see more such type of article in future this is recommended.

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