Most books are an experience, some books act as precious objects, but occasionally—when many stars and aesthetics align—a book can be both. Maryse Meijer’s Northwood enters that slim, murky category of journey and sculpture. Here is what you will notice about it first: It is physically, texturally gorgeous to see and to touch. Two distorted figures ooze across the bright red cover in a disturbing series of bulbous movements. These impressionistic bodies are both avoidant and entwined, in a fight or an embrace. The pages are black, the text is white, and the forms of the poems vary. Sometimes Meijer scatters the lines across the page, ostracizing each individual word. Sometimes there are fat chunks of prose crowded near the top of the page, the words hunched together in fear. You’ll want to rub your hands on the smooth covers, you’ll want to conspicuously leave this book lying around your desk. Friends will be drawn to it, coworkers will covertly flip through it.
The book’s artful appearance melds with the voice of the protagonist, a lonely artist who spends a year in a secluded cabin in the woods. She studies the figure, and her favorite figure happens to be an older man turned fairy tale villain whom she embraces with her whole body. Upon first seeing him, the anxious and self-destructive protagonist thinks he’s “older than any man I’d ever thought was beautiful, your beauty the first thing that hurt…”
A warning: The man is physically abusive. Meijer sketches the man’s cruelty as a figure, examining every aspect of that abuse, including its allure. The book studies the appeal of punishment for a person who feels they deserve pain; it examines the wrongheaded and sickly appeal of deep self-hate that once made you pick your acne or pull out your eyelashes in moments of stress.
Of course, the text often sharply veers from allure into ugliness. Instead of purely romanticizing a man who loves by hitting—which, of course, would be a mistake—the book also reacts to its subject with deep disgust. The poems overflow with bodily fluids: Blood is just about everywhere, crows shit all over streams, and “the sink/is streaked with bile.” There are also nagging anxieties about family members who might discover the affair; there is a concerned and clueless mother in the mix and a couple of spouses linger at the corners of the narrative, poking their heads in on occasion.
The only caveat is that the book falls short of fully realizing one of those spouses. At one point, a prince charming barrels into a story in the form of an unassuming husband. He first appears gracelessly, almost as a throwaway line: “There’s your husband now, asking you if there’s an extra jar of hot sauce somewhere he can’t find.” The protagonist loves him, but their relationship delves into darkness during one particularly sad night. After that evening, the husband fades into the background of the story, like wallpaper. Does the book dismiss him because he actually leaves? Does it reject him because he never mattered in the first place? Does the protagonist hate him for being a man who just wants to be a Nice Guy, does she hate him for not offering violence to validate her worst feelings about herself? Regardless, Meijer’s protagonist will drag you down into her most hideous, most beautiful pathos and ultimately, all of that outweighs anything about the guy who can’t find the hot sauce.
One last note: Perhaps the best part of this book is Meijer’s ability to add new dimensions to ancient cliches. She handles “once upon a time” imagery with a careful eye for cruelty, for weirdness. She so breathtakingly captures “the fox fingering his bride— / the dragon striking his tail on the stone.” To indulge in a couple cliches in response: This book is a page turner; you won’t be able to put it down; you’ll read it all in one go.