Agatha is plump, her swelling belly a cause for mockery within her unpleasant family. Agatha is also rich and well-connected; she can buy a new one and sell hers on, jiggles and all. But when she sees her buyer, her desires change… J Y Yang’s Secondhand Bodies takes an unflinching look at toxic relationships and the arrogance of privilege.
On the one hand, this is a thoroughly unpleasant story about despicable people. We first meet cousin Aloysius, self-centred and spiteful, given to petty slights and vicious attacks even on his family. But Agatha is no better: she is driven entirely by her own self-centred needs, although she considers herself vulnerable, even desperate. The cousins are far too deeply immersed in their privilege to know what that feels like.
Her buyer, Maryam, is beautiful. Agatha conducts a campaign to win her over, and it’s a fairytale nightmare. Everything is manipulation, Agatha stacking the deck to control gorgeous, malleable Maryam and keep her in her bed. From their first meeting, she never asks what Maryam wants or why.
There’s so many things to react badly to: the body shaming, the implications that a woman’s worth is based on her looks (‘Don’t embarrass the family. Chinese New Year is in three months and I’m bringing my girlfriend.’) and/or the colour of her skin (Maryam thinks lighter skin will get her ahead), and the abusive relationship (plus the suggestion that Maryam is being coaxed or coerced to comply by a third party). It’s beyond toxic and in places hard to read.
Thankfully, this is a morality tale and comeuppance is on the menu to balance it out. There’s no room to feel that Agatha or Aloysius are entitled to behave as they do, with an ending that recalls the dark adult twists of Dahl short stories.
It’s also gorgeously written, the sort of prose I could cheerfully read all day. The descriptions of Maryam’s name alone are seductive, and the ensuing encounters are carefully tuned to convey Maryam’s beauty and the cold, ugly need that drives Agatha at every step.
This is my first encounter with J Y Yang’s work, but I’ll be seeking out more.
Secondhand Bodies can be read online at Lightspeed.
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