Sarah Manguso’s Searching Novel of Sexual Abuse

In “Very Cold People,” the writer uses her unique, omissive style to capture a repressed New England town.

Poets have long approached the cold with a shiver of respect, aligning it with the least hospitable, most mysterious kinds of truth. Samuel Coleridge wondered at “the secret ministry” of frost. Robert Frost wrote that he grasped “enough of hate” to know that the apocalypse might come draped in ice. And Elizabeth Bishop compared knowledge—the real, pure stuff—to freezing water: “If you should dip your hand in, / your wrist would ache immediately, / your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn / as if the water were a transmutation of fire / that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame.”

Sarah Manguso’s new book has a fairy-tale quality, a ring of the nursery rhyme. Photograph by Beowulf Sheehan

These poets were evoking a type of understanding—that the universe was not made for humans, even if humans find it beautiful—that is often associated with middle or late life. With her début novel, “Very Cold People,” the poet and memoirist Sarah Manguso weaves it into the coming-of-age tale. The book follows Ruthie, an only child growing up in the fictional town of Waitsfield, Massachusetts. Waitsfield is old, rich America, full of Cabots, Lowells, and houses “with little gabled windows like third eyes opening.” Ruthie, whose parents are Jewish and Italian, wears outlet-store sweaters and pockets other people’s trash. Her world is animated by two axioms: it’s cold, and she hates her mother. At home, where she sits, bundled up, with her back against the radiator, “the cold was just everywhere.” Blowing through her memories is “the powder of the coldest days, too cold to melt, squeaking at the boot.” Ruthie’s mother makes fun of her daughter’s braces and wears “cheap shiny nightgowns” over “her lumpy body.” Yet there are hints of a more complicated story. Ruthie relays a vision of herself, as a girl, playing with her mom: “I laughed so hard I thought I might burst.” A reader senses a thrum of love beneath the harshness.