Reviewed by Andrea Marks-Joseph
An intimate study of a queer widow’s grief, shame, and parenting under an oppressive surveillance state
Speculative novel I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself follows a newly widowed queer woman named Kris, as she raises her child under both the weight of grief and the control of a fascist state which has criminalized their existence.
In this world, instead of going to prison for any state-proclaimed wrongdoing, people are given additional shadows—an inescapable and highly visible marker that comes with legalized second-class citizenship. Everyone is being watched at all times, and “the Department” can intervene in your life at any time based on what they see. It’s a terrifying, traumatizing existence that will feel familiar to marginalized readers.
I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself is written with aching nostalgia from the perspective of Kris talking to Beau, her wife, who died giving birth to their first child. The child was born with an extra shadow. “Are you going to be okay? They asked me at the hospital. I exchanged a yes for the kid.”
It’s a story in three parts, spanning almost a decade, starting from the moment the baby is handed to her. The narrative transports us to Beau’s pregnancy and the initial blossoming of their romance, into mournful text conversations with both women’s parents, and the turbulent present as it expands with their child’s growing up.
The novel discusses introducing kink into a relationship (sometimes with catastrophic results), questions a warped morality surrounding abolishing prisons, explores the emotional consequences of choosing anonymous sperm donation, and tackles the concept of “troubled” kids inside the school system.
Author Marisa Crane expertly mirrors the experience of raising a child as a marginalized person in their imagining of our society. They understand the mess, the madness, the anxiety that radiates constantly, conveying how its intense glow miraculously dims against the iridescent hope that bounces around the loving home Kris built for her child.
There’s a deep intimacy to the way Crane tells this story: woven together confessions from Kris to Beau, the mother of her child, whose death has left her grasping at the straws of what it means to exist and why.
Reading I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself feels like paging through a beautifully rendered therapy exercise that was designed to remain in the closed-door confines of the psychiatrist’s room. It’s easy to imagine, when reading Crane’s gorgeous, heartbreaking prose—which is consistently astounding and breathtakingly insightful—that Kris is sitting amongst the cluttered dishes and take-out wrappers, writing her heart out to the person she loves and misses more than it seems her body was built to hold.
It is as if Crane transmuted I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself from surveillance devices of their own, watched a woman grieving in her home, recorded all the late-night kitchen talks, the distraught sobbing, the mumbled thoughts to her baby while feeding—and tucked them gently into the pages of this book for us to unfold and read aloud. But it somehow never feels invasive, unlike the state-enforced surveillance that our protagonist lives under. We’ve been invited into Kris’s world by way of her heart, wide open.
You’ll need an assortment of colored pens when reading I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself. This novel is so full of sharply observed gut-punches and painfully human truths (about love, loss, desire, bureaucracy, fear mongering in the media, loneliness, kink, queerness, and new motherhood) that you’ll be thinking about Crane’s magnificent, evocative phrases for a while.
I highlighted and underlined more in this book than I ever have before, often pausing to really let the words sink in before I continued reading. Writing about inequality with a clarity and creativity this rich is always going to feel relevant and important.
The depth with which I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself captures what it means to be oppressed feels timeless. In twenty years, whatever social media has spiraled into by then, however our societies are divided by privilege, people will still be posting quotes from this book.
We are with Kris the first time she says “my late wife” out loud, and we are with her as she prepares for the first day of school knowing her twin-shadowed child looks alarmingly different. We experience the terror when that child—too young to spell the words correctly in her note explaining why, but old enough to follow through on them—tries to run away.
Reading I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself imbues the reader with a sense of wonder at raising this incredibly talented, fierce activist kid, who we don’t quite understand but absolutely adore. What terrifying pride to realize you’ve raised a revolutionary, knowing you have no power to protect her from a society built to keep her ashamed, hiding, silenced.
“I want to hug her,” Kris tells Beau-slash-us. “Also, to restrain her.”
There are so many parallels for readers who were born into and continue to live under a system built to oppress and isolate them. But it’s not all melancholy. There is always humor and absurdity in Kris and “the kid” (as she calls her throughout the book) expressing their disdain for the surveillance state and its enforcers.
Marisa Crane gets what it means to feel like you’re entirely made of your vulnerabilities and shame; gets that there are losses so profound that your entire world view shifts; gets that it’s disorienting on an existential level to be presented with a baby when your world suddenly looks completely different from when you were planning her arrival. In the years that follow, we witness the difficult birth of another miracle: Kris creating a village of loved ones to help her raise the child.
In addition to the grief of losing a spouse suddenly, I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself discusses potentially triggering topics such as depression, the terror of child services wanting to taking away your child, bullying at school, broadcasts of a fascist president, suicidal ideation and attempts, children running away from home, a desire to drown sorrows in alcohol, the death of a close friend, and BDSM.
I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself is excellent for fans of Black Mirror and the Netflix show Omniscient. It will be a particularly special read for anyone in need of commiserations in the death of their spouse, or their discomfort in spending their days alone with a newborn baby.
Equal parts queer, devastating, precious, and thought-provoking, I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself is an unforgettable experience, exploring what it means to be human and illuminating the healing significance of finding community in the depths of your despair.
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