Content Warnings: vivid sexual language, murder, violence, and some descriptions of blood.
A while back, I asked friends cast a vote: which genre should I pull from when I read my next book for my fat reading project? With 8 votes, literary fiction won. I only had one book on my list of fat reads that fit the genre — Mary Gaitskill’s Two Girls, Fat and Thin. I’d never read Gaitskill, and I confess that I didn’t jive with her writing style. It was both stiff and unnecessarily complicated in places. There was no mention of a fat person in the 50 pages I read. Apparently, it was the narrator. But I gave up.
Science fiction/fantasy/paranormal came up with 7 votes, so I moved on to Lyn Di Iorio’s Outside the Bones, a book recommended to me for my fat reads project. I found it confusing, abrasive, and rudderless.
*This book is part of my 2017 search to find positive representations of fat women in fiction or nonfiction, and that positive representation will not hinge on weight loss and falling in love. Thus, books will either meet or not meet my criteria, which will factor overall into my recommendations. I purposely use the word “fat” because it is not a bad word. Using plump, curvy, plus-sized, fluffy, big-boned, shapely, voluptuous, or any other term suggests that fat is bad and thus needs a euphemism.
Outside the Bones is narrated by Fina, a Latina in New York City who is originally from Puerto Rico. She provides details about herself early on, describing why she had married her ex-husband: “his being white and even-tempered seemed to guarantee that he would always be nice.”
But Fina’s husband cheated on her with a thin woman. In that moment, Fina remembers, her husband “glanced at the tattooed lovebirds spilling out of [her] stretchy low-cut top, and finally stopped at the jelly belly that didn’t like to stay under nothing.” I’m assuming the negative diction — “jelly belly” — is not meant to be cute. Furthermore, Fina notes, “I may be a big girl, but I have a refined soul.” She implies it can’t be both: a big girl AND a refined soul, thus the reader stumbles into fat shaming. Fina even tries to escape her body when she dances. She gets out of her “fat girl avatar,” as if her body is not really her own, and allows herself to be a “sweaty J. Lo,” a celebrity worshiped for (mainly) a larger rear end but an acceptably small body in general.
Finally, she just labels herself: “a 200-pound ghetto bitch queen.” 200 pounds is in the range of “acceptably fat,” the kind of fat person we see in publications that try to show fat people really are “cute,” but only use models who are not much bigger than the average woman. I noted that Lyn Di Iorio is not a fat woman, but she did grow up in Puerto Rico, making this an #ownvoices book in some ways.
The novel is more so about a form of witchcraft called Palo, which traveled from Puerto Rico to New York City. It takes most of the book to gather all the necessary information to understand the practice. Fina explains that she “pretended to be a witch,” not giving me much confidence in her at first. She’s Victor Tata’s student, and he is “master of ngangas” (I’m assuming that means spirits).
Later, she tells a co-worker that the spells she casts are “unpredictable” because “they weren’t really made for white people, or non-Latinos.” It doesn’t feel like Fina knows much about anything. Information about Palo comes out in ways that isn’t explained:
Trouble was there was no coming back from the cutting. To be cut in Palo meant that you might see all the nfuiris, all the spirits of the dead and all the nkisis, and the gods of the woods and wind and even the few born lately into the street.
I don’t know what it means to be cut or what nfuiris and nkisis are. I found at the end a glossary for such terms, but with an e-book, you don’t see that sort of thing until it’s too late. Eventually, Fina stumbles into some bones that claim her, and readers learn Fina is capable of witchcraft.
Halfway through the book I learned that these nfuiris and nkisis are spirits of people who died violently. The spirits find themselves “outside the bones.” They can live in other creatures if they want, like a rat, to move around more, but ultimately the spirits are tied to their own bones. Thus, people who practice Palo can gather up those bones, keep them in a cauldron, and command the spirits to do good or evil. They keeper of bones feeds the spirit blood (is that the cutting part?), typically the keeper’s own.
Outside the Bones has a confusing plot. Fina is in love with her neighbor, Chico, who lives in the same apartment building. He was married in Puerto Rico, but his wife and baby died from an illness. A strange sexy teenager shows up one day claiming to be the dead daughter. Then another woman, a former pageant winner from Puerto Rice with whom Chico had an affair in the past, also shows up. Trying to figure out who these women really are and what they mean to Chico is challenging — and I didn’t find the challenge worth it. It’s not until the end of the novel that we learn more about Chico’s dead wife, daughter, who this teenager is, and why the beauty queen is there. Mixed in is two pretty gruesome murders and another murder that seemed pointless (to the plot). Why didn’t Lyn Di Iorio give more clues about the past throughout the novel instead of dumping them all at the end? There is also information about Fina’s dad in the form of flashbacks, but his significance to the story is unclear.
Mostly, though, you’ll notice the sexual language and likely be repelled. All the scenes included are descriptions of female anatomy that struck me as pornographic and unnecessary — and none of them were about Fina. What was the point of letting a fat witch tell the story if it pretty much isn’t about her? Then, in one situation Fina makes a comment that could be interpreted as homophobic because she can’t stop staring at another woman’s naked body, but wants to clarify that she isn’t a lesbian. Clarify to who — the reader?
Overall, I felt like Di Iorio held back too much information for too long and chose the wrong person to narrate the story. I didn’t care what happened next because there wasn’t a clear plot thread to follow, and if there is no motivation for the characters, their stories seem random. As a result, it took me 16 days to finish this 208-page novel.