Ariana Harwicz’s Feebleminded, the second in an “involuntary trilogy” of novels which began with Die, My Love, and will be completed by Precocious (already available in Spanish), tells a story we have heard many times before: a young woman falls in love with a married man but, whatever the strength of her feelings, he will not leave his wife. What marks Feebleminded out from previous versions of this staple drama is the way it is told (and also, it had to be said, the role of the young woman’s mother, mother and daughter relationships forming the basis of the trilogy). If Die, My Love pushed the boundaries of what we might expect in the description of Harwicz’s characters’ internal turmoil, Feebleminded has simply left the boundaries behind.

Harwicz’s central focus is her narrator’s desire: “Degenerate desire. Damaging desire. Demented desire.” This desire is so overpowering it impairs her faculties, diminishes her ability to reason, leaving her ‘feebleminded’:

“This epileptic desire, this deformed desire, a drooling lustful crip who needs two people to lift him and carry him so he can fuck on the soft mattress.”

When her lover speaks to her after sex the narrator listens “with the reverential astonishment of a feebleminded woman”, and, later, she says, “I lose everything from the neck up.” Like Sylvia Plath describing her emotional pain in terms of the Holocaust, Harwicz is unafraid to offend in pinpointing her character’s delirium. Desire is the only thing which can lift the narrator out of her dull existence:

“I quiver, I shake, my fingers are my morphine and for that brief moment everything’s fine.”

Without it she has, and perhaps is, nothing:

“A whole life spent in the gloom of a shop, the iron keyring, the fuse box, the stairs to the storeroom. The tiny bathroom. The cleaning products and polishing the shelves. A whole life.”

This is not to say she is unaware of the danger – the way in which the rawness of her feelings exposes her – and Harwicz frequently uses knife imagery to convey this point, both to describe her lover’s approach (“And kissing was a steady advance, knife raised”) and his departure (“He’s getting further away and it feels like a knife thrust in my gut”), as if to emphasise that she cannot win. Something similar exists in her relationship with her mother, with whom she talks about the “knife experiment” at one point:

“You have to test your impulses: take the knife by the handle, bring it slowly towards her chest and see for yourself that you won’t really stick it in. What a weird method, right mum? I was this close to slicing you open.”

We are given the impression that her mother (no father is mentioned; it is a household of women) has little time for her as a child (“Like when mum and grandma couldn’t find me at the campsite and I had to spend all night sleeping among the lambs”) and is relieved when she reaches puberty:

“Mum delighted when my back’s finally strapped by my very first bra and already I’m talking dirty.”

Later, her mother will show a prurient interest in the narrator’s sex life (“Surprised your mother slept around too?”) just as then narrator will think about her own conception:

“I think about my mum’s sex and the man’s screwed together, turning me into a little girl. I think about our hairy sexes inventing sons and daughters.”

Both mother and daughter are frequently portrayed as animalistic:

“Mum will be feeding on pants, munching them down one by one, her mouth never empty.”

Animals are scattered throughout the narrative, and the two characters are often (together and alone) in the woods. Early on we are told:

“We’re both in heat from the scalp down, two abandoned sows.”

All in all, Feebleminded sounds like a novel that’s ‘not for everyone’, yet many – perhaps most – will have experienced the madness of desire, and, if you haven’t, it is clearly an aspect of the human condition which should not be ignored. If that is not enough to convince you, then the novel is worth reading for the language alone, thanks in part to the incredible work of translators Annie McDermott and Caroline Orloff. Take, for example:

“The sixty minutes before I see him are beautifully sordid, like diving head-first into a ravine.”


“Falling in love is the downpour under an electrified roof.”

In fact, line after line bursts from the page in vivid, complex, terrifying images. The final volume cannot come soon enough.

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7 Responses to “Feebleminded”

  1. JacquiWine Says:

    While I don’t think this novel is quite for me, I do like the idea that it takes a fresh approach to the exploration of a familiar scenario. Those final two quotes at the end of your piece are so striking – the really convey the maelstrom emotions at play here.

  2. Radz Pandit Says:

    I had loved Die, My Love when I read it last year so am really keen to get to this. Sounds great from your review!

  3. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Vivid, complex and terrifying sounds spot on for Harwicz. I was left slightly cold by Die, My Love, but I already have this so I’ll read it anyway. Perhaps going even more intense will make me like this one better, even though more intense than Die is hard to imagine!

  4. Tender | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] a mother, her anger alternating with waves of desire directed at a neighbour. In the second book, Feebleminded, that desire takes centre stage – “Degenerate desire. Damaging desire. Demented desire.” It […]

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