Review: Trapped in Abby Geni’s The Body Farm

The characters in The Body Farm span across generations, backgrounds, lifestyles, and conflicts, but they all seem to share one thing: they’re trapped. 

This is Abby Geni’s second short story collection. The Last Animal, her other collection, was her first published book. She’s also written two novels (The Lightkeepers, The Wildlands). Like Geni’s other work, The Body Farm pays tribute to flora and fauna. Insects, marine life, forest critters, and more pop up in these stories and reflect humanity’s capacity for wild behavior and vulnerability. Geni is a literary zoologist, pinning her characters down like butterflies, inspecting and preserving them for display. Her stories pore over characters’ minds for pages at a time, and these characters, like captured animals, are antsy to find relief through escape.

Sometimes that relief comes. A few of these stories end in suspiciously convenient circumstances for their plucky protagonists. In particular, “A Spell for Disappearing” and “The Body Farm” wrap up with a tidiness and satisfaction that literary short stories tend to avoid. These specific stories are about women burdened with abusers, and although the main characters are not physically trapped by their obsessive stalker/partner, they are trapped in a sense they cannot escape. Things work out so perfectly by the end of these two stories that they border on wish fulfillment. But my literary diet is mostly made up of fiction that ends ambiguously or unhappily, so it’s nice to treat myself to stories in which people get their just desserts.

“Petrichor” is about Hannah, a woman in a unique trap. The story takes its name from the scent of rain on soil, and it dazzles as it immerses readers into the five senses. It reminds me of Italo Calvino and his similar fascinations with sensory stimuli. His short novel Mr. Palomar and his unfinished short story collection Under the Jaguar Sun catalog images, scents, and other sensations. “Petrichor” is about Hannah and her loss of smell, then loss of taste, then hearing, then sight, and finally, touch. Geni and Calvino’s attentions are the same, but where Calvino wrote playful, buttery sentences, Geni opts for compact and dense prose. Her stories do not need to linger over a description of a person or experience because one sentence was enough to capture their essence. "Petrichor” is complicated because it describes a terrifying descent into senselessness, and yet it is also a call to action, encouraging readers to appreciate the unglamorous parts of our everyday lives. Lines like “The lemony odor of her apartment, the lingering tang of fabric softener in her sheets, the pleasant stink of her own garish sweat” argue that the quotidian moments should be celebrated before it’s too late. 

In “Petrichor,” main character Hannah is trapped, unfeeling, in her own body. And abusive men trap the women in “A Spell for Disappearing” and “The Body Farm.” “Across, Beyond, Through” has a teen trapped with an abusive mother and outdated ideas about gender. Prison, shark cages, and a family home provide the physical traps for “The Rapture of the Deep,” “Love in Florida,” and “Starlike” respectively—although the metaphorical traps in these stories are more subtle, and much more interesting.

My favorite story is “Mother, Sister, Wife, Daughter.” When a man leaves in the family yacht, his six daughters are left behind in their nouveau-riche mansion with little consolation from their absent-minded mother. Other men in the girls’ lives start to leave in different ways—by quitting, dying, or just outright staying away from the home altogether. Finding no other explanation for men’s worsening avoidance, the girls theorize they are cursed. The daughters are nearly reduced to simple archetypes to keep them distinct, but that in itself is consistent with the way young children often think and reduce things to their familiar components. Because they are kids, they try to keep things simple. Geni captures childlike wonder with respect and, I think, a rare accuracy.

These stories share other details, including scenes of stilted conversations in cars; discoveries of the unique stresses of care-taking; and the mutability of sibling relationships. And if Geni herself is infatuated with nature, so too are her characters, who seek knowledge of the natural world and appreciate it from a respectful distance. Characters are framed against the backdrop of wide expanses like the US coasts, the deep ocean, and the endlessness of outer space.

The Body Farm calmed me. Despite their dark subject matter, the combination of Geni's assured sentences, details about nature, and story outcomes felt satisfying and soothing. But my response says more about me than it does about this collection: Your own impression of the book might be quite different, depending on the types of books you typically read and how you perceive the characters Geni writes about.

The Body Farm is available at most bookstores and through the publisher's website.

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Allison Manley

Allison Manley writes book reviews, short stories, and poetry. In addition to writing for Third Coast Review, her reviews have been published in Independent Book Review and the Southern Review of Books. Her creative work has been published in The Chicago Reader, Points in Case, Not Deer Magazine, The Oyez Review, and The Gateway Review. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte. She likes beer, opera, and body horror. She is particularly interested in reviewing single-author short story collections. If you see her, please let her pet your dog.