How do we grieve? How do we look at the most shameful parts of ourselves? How do we reconcile with our contradictory nature? In Animal Bodies: Death, Desire, and Other Difficulties, Suzanne Roberts’s newest book of lyrical, poignant, and daring essays, the author takes us into the trenches. Roberts writes, “We deny the most natural parts of ourselves—our hungers, our desires, our vulnerabilities and frailties, and even our grief.” This collection then opens the floodgates on what it means to be a human with deep desires, shameful moments, and grief.
We learn early on that grief is a wave that keeps hitting the shore, one pushed by a different tide each time. In “The Grief Scale,” one of the first essays in the collection, Roberts intends to write about her sick friend Ilyse, yet instead spends most of the narrative detailing her father’s death. Near the end, Roberts writes, “Each new sadness dips into the well of rest, carrying the old grief with the new.”
Grief appears and reappears throughout these powerful essays, taking on different forms each time. Likewise, they set up the inherent nature of human contradiction with grief: knowing and not knowing, the controllable and uncontrollable, the possible and impossible, and the measurable and unmeasurable—all contradictions that reveal our most raw and sometimes most confusing selves.
The essays in Animal Bodies stretch our understanding, too. Because grief contains multitudes, it demands to be treated as such. Sometimes grief is obvious, as in the passing of Roberts’s parents and dog, and even the “death” of her marriage. Other times, it’s more subtle. In the “Queen of the Amazon,” Roberts questions whether one can grieve a place that isn’t yours to begin with after witnessing the devastating effects of deforestation during her “quintessential honeymoon” in the Amazon. In “Friending the Dead,” she contemplates whether we can forgive and whether we should grieve someone who has mistreated us in the past. In this case, a boy who in junior high school verbally assaulted and sexually harassed Roberts and many other pre-teen girls. Unfortunately, grief is never clear cut. We’re fortunate, therefore, to have someone like Roberts to guide us through it.
Roberts takes physical symptoms of the body and artfully (and sometimes comically) uses them as a bridge to discuss larger themes. In “Rites of Passage,” she writes about her husband’s shame regarding his colonoscopy as an entryway into discussing how our own bodies betray us. In “Sportfucking,” she gives into desire when she has an affair with Werther, a poet and “wisp of a man.” Roberts writes, “I suppose I went to see Werther because I wanted to have a life that was exciting and free…,” and then later admits, “I see now how contradictory it all was.” What Roberts wanted was freedom; instead she used a placeholder—and consequently acquired a bladder infection.
I admire the way Roberts navigates the book with compassion, both for herself and others, showing deep and rich vulnerability. For example: “Animal Bodies,” the title essay, in which caged-meat dogs in Vietnam and “swayed-back horses meant for meat” at the Sa Pa market make Roberts ponder the hypocrisy in her own carnivorous diet. Animal Bodies helps us determine whether we can “believe two contradictory things at once.”
Female embodiment—the challenges of living in a female body—is one of the book’s most poignant and powerful themes. I can see myself in “The Hungry Bride,” where Roberts painfully craves to be thinner to fit into her dress before the big day. I can feel thousands, even millions of other women’s hearts tearing when reading, “Breaking the Codes,” a story between beige walls that recounts the night of a friend’s rape—though they “hadn’t learned to say the word rape.” May we all think of our beige wall stories. The essay reviews the rules and codes of what young women are taught to do and what not to tell. But Roberts is here to break those rules. After all, she did warn us on the first page of the collection that the essays are rich in transgression. I’m confident in saying the whole collection is a loud, resonant call.
What would happen if, instead of denying our unruly, contradictory animal bodies, we unapologetically let ourselves cry out with desire, grief, and the emotions in between? Maybe then we’d be able to accept our true natures, just as Roberts is learning to do.
Vilune Sestokaite is a 20-something master’s graduate and creative nonfiction writer who explores themes surrounding female embodiment, her Lithuanian heritage, and gender. She has work published in LandLocked, KU’s literary magazine, and currently lives in Kansas City, Missouri. When she’s not working, she enjoys traveling, hiking, reading, and cooking.