I came across The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial in my GoodReads recommendations, and thought it seemed almost like the perfect book for me – a memoir about family history, women, and crime. The crime element particularly appealed to me as the book details Maggie Nelson’s experience of the trial of the man of may have murdered her aunt, over thirty years before. She and her family had no idea that the murder was still being investigated, and then suddenly they are told that a possible suspect will be tried for it. It’s a whirlwind of old pain and new horror as Nelson’s mother, aunt, and grandfather have to dredge up their memories of what happened to their sister and daughter – Nelson’s aunt Jane.
It turns out Nelson had written a book of poetry and prose about her aunt, simply called Jane: A Murder, which came out in 2005, just two years before this book – so she was already somewhat familiar with her aunt’s life and the circumstances of her death, even though she never knew her. Jane was murdered in 1969, when she was 23 and studying at the University of Michigan. Unless it happens to you, it’s impossible to know what it’s like to live with the knowledge that someone in your family, so closely related to you, was murdered. Throughout The Red Parts, Nelson muses on her connection to Jane and why her death seems to haunt her so much. Perhaps because she knows the pain caused to her mother and her other relatives, perhaps because Jane was killed so randomly by a stranger, and that this could, in theory, happen to any woman who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
She also muses on our shared interest in these awful stories, especially when she and her mother are asked to participate in an episode of the show 48 Hours Mystery about Jane’s death. They agree to do it, but throughout The Red Parts Nelson discusses her conflicted feelings about this sort of thing – why do we want to know all the unpleasant details? Is it voyeuristic or sensationalist to learn about murders like Jane’s? She wonders why we obsess so much over young women who are murdered, why it can be so hard to prove what really happened, and why it is necessary to try a man for a crime that happened so long ago. She wonders about the nature of justice and the difference between its legal definition and the feeling of justice that she supposes her family are meant to feel if the suspect in Jane’s murder is found guilty. Does that make it all better? Does that close the book on the whole thing?
These are interesting and vital questions that I think we could all relate to or apply to something in our lives; but I wasn’t sure whether Nelson was trying to appeal to her readers in that way, or whether she just wanted to express her disgust at both the horrific nature of Jane’s murder, and her own confusion over it and its consequences. She seems to disapprove of 48 Hours Mystery and other media interest in the trial, and at times even her own interest in it beyond her familial connection. I thought perhaps she was going to explore the possibility that we are all fascinated by things like murder because we are afraid of them, and we want to understand them, and she brings this in to some extent, but the overwhelming impression is of her revulsion and misery in the face of the whole situation. Not to say she shouldn’t feel these things, but there was nothing to counter it, nothing to remind us that life can still be good and happy, and that there can be light at the end of the tunnel.
I’d never read anything by Maggie Nelson before The Red Parts, and honestly I’m not sure I will read anything else of hers. While I found this book fascinating, I found it very hard to read (it’s only 195 pages and I was reading it from August to October) and I can’t say I enjoyed it very much. Nelson’s narrative is raw and tough, and I personally found her hard to relate to, despite the universality of much of what she discussed. The Red Parts is, to me, a cold and hard book with a cold and hard centre. Its darkness is rarely countered by glimmers of light or comfort and the unpleasantness and sadness is unrelenting. I’m glad I read it, but I’m also glad it was so short. Not one for the fainthearted.
Originally published by Free Press (an imprint of Simon & Schuster) in 2007. I read the 2017 Faber paperback edition, pictured above.