Conceal everything

Topic Sentence #13

Dear reader,

Here’s our topic sentence for today, context included and italics mine:

She shakes herself, then hides for a moment in the powder room and throws back a shot of vodka, not looking at her reflection. Why itemize the speckles on the bridge of her nose, the spiny cartilage of her ears, the tiny broken vessels in her cheeks? Why acknowledge the monster in the mirror? Still swallowing, feeling the vodka burn its way through the frozen animal that’s invaded her throat, she darts upstairs to the shower, blow-dryer, foundation, lipstick. She’ll conceal everything, and when she’s done, no one will know what’s there, just under the surface.

This sentence comes from Maria Dahvana Headley’s fiery novel, The Mere Wife: a modern recasting of Beowulf (recommended to me by literary craftsperson Angela Slatter). Mythic retellings can be awkward, especially when they opt for a contemporary setting for the shock of it—but at their best, as Headley does here, they shed light on the parts we still play in those old stories, and the shock gives way to another: the shock of recognition.

In The Mere Wife, the monsters become those who have been made so by war, the setting a housing estate where the other monsters have been made so by politeness and suburbia, everything twisted just so.

Our topic sentence begins with a present participle: “still swallowing”. A present participle is a tricky beast—because of its non-specific present tense, its can make for often unwieldy sentences, linguistically awkward for reader and sometimes physically awkward for the character.

An example from the top of my head: “Standing, he takes the gun from the drawer and heads out.” That is, are we meant to understand that he stood and kept on incrementally standing as the sentence progresses and he heads out the door?

In Headley’s sentence though, that’s the point—she is “swallowing” and “feeling”, the grammar mirrors the effect of the vodka lingering on the character as she continues on through the sentence.

The vodka “burns” and, just like the Mere Wife’s characters’, pitted in a fight—against “the frozen animal that’s invaded her throat”. At the risk of repetition, images work best when they work both in the specific—it’s an image that we can feel in our body, of our throats being frozen over by what someone else has said—and in the thematic—it’s a novel about animals and beasts and monsters and those who fight them and those who fight for them.

After all that, we have the nimbleness of the main clause: “she darts upstairs”, followed by an elision of time, a list that acts like a film montage: “blow-dryer, foundation, lipstick”. This neatly echoes that oddness of the participle, as she feels the effects, the other parts of the sentence are melted away to their essential parts.

And it’s followed by a kicker of a next sentence. This list is not just make-up but concealer: “She’ll conceal everything, and when she’s done, no one will know what’s there, just under the surface.”

Again, both specific, and thematic, and repeat.

Standing,

Guan

P.S. Book links above go to bookshop.org, which supports local bookstores, and not Amazon. I get a small commission. Here’s a list of previous Topic Sentence books.