Review: Garden of Earthly Bodies by Sally Oliver

cover of Garden of Earthly BodiesGarden of Earthly Bodies by Sally Oliver 
Harry N. Abrams (June 2022) 
320 pages; $26.00 hardcover; $9.99 ebook 
Reviewed by Haley Newlin

Sally Oliver’s Garden of Earthly Bodies is a visceral vortex of blood and trauma.

In a uniquely elegant literary style, Oliver’s novel follows Marianne, whose life has become tense and overgrown with the weeds of trauma and enmeshment. Marianne’s younger sister, Marie, falls deathly ill and experiences heavy mood dips, frequent exhaustion, and severe depression — the three settling in as her reformed default personality.

Marianne, with dreams of becoming a writer, sets out for opportunities but finds a rubber band containing her and her family. And as Marie’s condition worsens, so does her attitude and dependency on Marianne. The band soon snaps and sends Marianne crashing back into her previous life of sadness; only now, gut-wrenching grief accompanies.

Not to mention, she has thick hairs sprouting like vines along her back. With this detail and the bloodied lengths Marianne goes through to deal with the growths, I sensed a “Night Bitch by Rachel Yoder” vibe. Like Yoder’s novel, a woman’s body and how she copes with depression and trauma becomes the front runner of the story, creating the effect of the characters’ internal and physical selves at odds, like a hero and a villain.

Oliver makes a seamless connection with this theme, as Yoder did, and both women took the route of not creating any truly likable characters. This throws readers from time to time but it felt fitting for Garden of Earthly Bodies. 

Both stories truly orbit our relationships with our bodies. And the commentary and metaphors in Garden of Earthly Bodies are beautiful, though not explicitly spelled out. Admittedly, I had to reread some parts, especially the ending, to grasp the central message truly.

I don’t mind books that make me think, but I believe that had the climax and resolution been slightly better paced, the poetic, between-the-lines commentary would be more apparent to readers.

However, I truly loved this read. It’s every bit horrific as it is intelligence. Sally Oliver has made a loyal reader out of me. I’ll be waiting, eager for her next release.

Fans of gothic, classic literary horror, this one is for you.

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