Very Cold People by Sarah Manguso review – a masterclass in unease

The American writer’s first novel applies her spare, elliptical style to a creepy coming-of-age tale set in Massachusetts

When I finished Very Cold People, I felt my whole body unclench. In the process of reading this creepy coming-of-age tale, I seemed to have trapped a nerve in my shoulder – it’s that tense. It’s a novel in which nothing very much happens for about 100 pages but small objects – Barbie dolls, Girl Scout sashes, bubble gum, nail polish, a knitted scarf – assume vast significance, and small kindnesses feel overwhelming. When a friend tips candy into the hand of the narrator, Ruthie, she says: “I couldn’t believe how much she was giving me. Just giving it to me, when she could have eaten it herself.” Any act of generosity feels too good to be true.

The author of this chilling tale is debut novelist Sarah Manguso, 48, who tried for 20 years to capture the culture of the icy, all-white Massachusetts town of her 1980s childhood in nonfiction, before finally arriving at the spare, elliptical form she uses here. Once home to the wealthiest New England families, the fictional town of Waitsfield has emptied out over the years and yet its residents, with their Mayflower ancestors, are still obsessed with social class. It’s a place of “emotional poverty”, Manguso has said in an interview – a place where “in all of its coldnesses and silences, [it] is ideally set up to protect abusers”.

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