The Book of X: A Novel by Sarah Rose Etter

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“I’M NOT RELIGIOUS, but I damn well prayed”, my mother says, exhaling smoke over the kitchen table. “I rubbed the rosaries raw that you would take after your father.”

Cassie doesn’t take after her father, despite her mother’s desperately raw prayers. Born, like her mother and her mother before her, cursed by a rare inheritance of twisted stomachs in the shape of a knot that they conceal beneath their clothing. Living on a farm in the acres, Cassie’s father’s inheritance, isolated from the rest of town, the one place she doesn’t have to ‘stomach’ the shame of the stares of others. The thought circling my mind through reading was this, there is a time in many a young girls life that her stomach is twisted, in fear, in shame. On the land, their lifeblood is the meat quarry where her father and brother harvest meat from the walls of the canyon. Cassie’s curiosity about the place is a hunger, but like so many other things in the world, it’s not meant for the eyes of females.

Can I just take a moment to point out her mother’s unbearable unhappiness and disappointment about her life, her knot? The prayer and how devastating it truly is, just take away the knot and think on it. A mother that prays for her daughter not to be like her, that self-hatred passed down through generations. The “It’s time to take a look at ourselves with honesty” comment from her mother. Somehow looking at ourselves with honesty is to examine all the ways in which we fail to measure up to the physical perfection the world demands a worthy women has. The impossibility of resembling all those flat-stomached women in magazines… The knot is symbolic, well of course.

Most of Cassie’s school days are spent shrinking, keeping quiet, the only way those who are different can hope to be left alone- the shield of invisibility. Always though, there is trouble, the cruelty of peers, especially when you’re a born freak, a medical curiosity. Her escape are in visions of a happier existence, but the horrors of reality always await her. She studies the other students and there perfectly normal bodies, desperate to be like Sophia. Sophia is a friend, kind of, right? Isn’t she? Is she? As Cassie’s sexuality blooms, her body burning with the same desires as all young girls, she is shamed by her knot, even when a boy she’s had her eyes on secretly seems to return her interest.

The rawness of the meat, her entrance into the quarry like some wild animal, you can almost smell the bloodied mass, the ‘masculinity’ of it haunts the pages. “I like it when you listen to me,” Jared says. Doesn’t he just? Throughout the novel she wants to be loved, she wants to feel normal, to cure the knot because then… then everything will be perfect, she will be worthy of love. Because as things stand, she is only a thing to be used and discarded, a dirty secret desire. She better like whatever she can get. Sound familiar ladies?

Later, she lives her life going through the motions, disappearing, anonymous in the city. Just being a woman in the world and all the rotten luck that entails. She knows better than to ask for anything better than this, until there may be a chance for a cure. From this point on the novel left a lump in my throat, there is a moment where she is feeling great and a man shouts from the street, “What are you smiling about, you ugly bitch?”  Someone is always ready to steal your confidence, happiness. Cassie is absolutely shaped by her knot, denigrated by lovers, the ones not too horrified to touch her, apologetic for having that ‘woman’s burden, her knot’. All women have their own knot, it just isn’t physically visible.  The Book of X  exposes how society sinks it’s fangs into females of all ages, rips them to a bloody pulp and all the while she’s meant to apologize for what is done to her, as if there is a why.

In fact, women do it to each other too, in her co-worker who knows a guy that can fix her. Just fix what the world decides is ugly about you, then you will be of value, you will be over the moon with happiness and find a man to love you. Right. Because the world won’t just find something else to be repulsed by. I think it will hit women in what it doesn’t have to spell out about Cassie navigating her life, like all of us. There are moments as raw as the meat in the quarry. This is a hell of a book! A book too loud to ignore!

Publication Date: July 16, 2019

Two Dollar Radio

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