We know tragic women. The well-loved trope of doomed women, fictional or historical, is both overused and comforting in literature; immediately recognisable, somehow soothing. In Nicola Maye Goldberg’s debut novel Other Women the unnamed narrator nods to the “pantheon of dead girls: Ophelia, Sylvia Plath, Emma Bovary, Laura Palmer, Joan of Arc, Marie Antoinette.” The girls lost to men and violence and history. A long line of women who deserved better. A group of bitter ghosts.
Initially it seems Other Women’s fraught, depressed narrator might join them, but instead, “Sometime shortly after I dropped out,” she explains, “I gave up on being a Sad Girl and got used to being a Sick Girl instead.”
Goldberg’s conception of the ‘Sick Girl’ is one of the most triumphant fuck-yous to the Sad Girl trope I’ve read in years: Fuck you, I’m not sad like a beautiful accessory; Fuck you, it’s not just in my head; Fuck you, it is in my head and that’s a medical issue. Goldberg’s Sick Girl is depressed, anxious, unwell. She practices self-harm. She fantasises about suicide. She goes to see a useless psychiatrist and returns home to practice new forms of self-destruction. Her sickness is undeniably a medical issue, fitting for a heroine interested in anatomy and biology; one interested, particularly, in blood. It wells up again and again, usually as a surprise to the reader but always, in hindsight, obvious, as though blood and its spectre are thrumming along under the narrative.
Julia Kristeva proposed the theory of the abject: the fear of the Other that threatens our own self, that breaks down the carefully constructed identities and systems we live by. Hints of our bodies’ inevitable decay—blood, faeces, pus—distort our view of ourselves as alive. It’s no surprise that horror fiction continues to dwell on blood, from Carrie to the Saw franchise. But Goldberg dwells on blood with lingering pleasure and interest, like a child picking at scabs. It always appears in soft focus. It is usually still warm.
Other Women isn’t by necessity a bloody story: it’s about a young college dropout and her infatuation with a boy who already has a girlfriend (he is unnamed too, just a ‘you’ who haunts the text). In the short novel she has an affair with the boy, then leaves New York for Berlin as a nanny to the rich Herzfeld family. It sounds more like standard millennial uncertainty than horror movie. But I kept idle count of blood as it shows up in Other Women, lost count, picked it up again. The narrator falls down the stairs, skins her knee; donates blood for the way nurses touch her; is bitten by fleas and scratches until she bleeds: “So I guess you could say I bled for you,” she tells her love interest dryly. And, perhaps inevitably, the narrator makes herself bleed, and relives the experience when she stumbles upon the Herzfelds’ teenage daughter Sophie also committing self-harm. They discuss it in a conversation explicitly made girlish: “‘Have you ever done it?’ Sophie asked, her voice sweet and quiet, like she was asking about my first kiss.”
It’s a sneering rejoinder to the idea of girls talking about boys at sleepovers, unveiling a secret, morbid world in a fancy bathroom. And the idea of pain that’s self-inflicted takes on a sense of control and ritual for Goldberg’s characters, obliterating psychological pain. American theorist Elaine Scarry talks about religious self-flagellation: an act of “so emphasizing the body that the contents of the world are cancelled and the path is clear for the entry of an unworldly, contentless force.” I spent much of Other Women uneasily waiting for that force to descend.
“I liked working for the Herzfelds for the same reason you liked watching horror movies,” the narrator says. “It was both terrible and immensely satisfying to watch a beautiful thing rot from the inside out.” In fact, the whole book unfolds as a tiny, perfect, feminine horror story. The continual threat of violence is Other Women’s most omnipresent danger. It lingers like a storm cloud or jagged violins in a low-budget slasher flick, with the slow decay of the Herzfelds’ marriage and the narrator’s growing misery closing in around the reader.
By the end, you’re almost hoping for pain to wipe it clear, and sure enough, when pain descends it does so in soft, romantic lighting, as the narrator lies “mesmerized for almost an hour, feeling lightheaded and warm.” The safety after the jumpscare.
Stories about obsession are easy to write and difficult to read. It’s hard to convince an outsider the object of your obsession is worthy. The obsessee is often curiously flat: unappealing, unattractive. The author can dissect them in an attempt to show them off, but usually all that’s left is a heap of parts. Obsession isn’t contagious.
Unsurprisingly, then, Goldberg’s love interest is by far the least interesting aspect of the novel. Even the infatuated narrator seems to know this on some level—the boy is generic, “dress[es] the same as any other vaguely hip white guy”—and the only appeal she can give him is some undefinable freshness, betterness. To the reader-outsider, the mystery that clings to him is just vapidness; the act of cheating on his girlfriend not something intriguing but rather repellent. Unlike the narrator, the reader can see him for what he probably is: an arsehole.
What is left, what is interesting, is the obsession itself. Away from the boy, the narrator eats herself up in a way that is both painfully particular and very familiar. Obsession isn’t contagious but it’s easy to live inside, easy to relate to. And as the narrator of Other Women peels herself apart to examine any trace left by the affair, there’s a sense that what’s real here is the obsession itself. “[Y]ou had followed me, pulling at my hair, whispering in my ear,” Goldberg writes. “Even worse, I had followed myself.”
In the five months I’ve been in Berlin, I’ve read Other Women three times. It’s discomforting and delightful to read a novel while encircled by the territory it describes. Each read made me feel as though the city I was walking around in belonged to that narrator, and not me – which is fine. Berlin’s hellish supermarkets, the nauseating misery of not being able to speak enough German, the flowers and whitewashed walls and dirty streets. Goldberg picks up the undercurrents of the city, the way it beguiles and bewilders its new arrivals, leaving us dazed and childlike.
The unnamed narrators’ inability to escape her cities reinforces Other Women as a horror story. It owes a debt to Gothic novels of the nineteenth century, heroines trapped alone, heroines surrounded on all sides, men both enticing and terrifying. But it is also unavoidably linked to twentieth- and 21st-century horror cinema, most clearly in the threat of violence, which in isolation is sufficient. We know everything that has been and can be done to women, have watched it bored on Friday nights, have been shocked and frightened and tired of it for most of our lives. This miasma hangs over Other Women, blurring the distinction between violence and threat, diving deep into a horror movie’s atmosphere of dread without ever fulfilling it.
Goldberg demands bodily responses from her readers: the slow roll of revulsion, the giddy flush of a thwarted crush, the creeping dread of something bad about to happen. Lacking one particular villain, all the men in Other Women fall under unnamed suspicion. Domesticity and sexuality is flipped, eyed with an unnerving new perspective. A boy taking a coat in a “slow, careful way … made me feel as if you were … preparing me for a ritual sacrifice.” When she falls in love, the narrator “felt something inside of me flicker and go dark.” Meeting the Herzfeld family “felt like being in a dollhouse or the set of a television show; unreal and kind of invasive,” and we have already seen two girls discuss self-harm with the same tenderness and shy gossip we imagine to be the territory of first kisses.
But it’s in Goldberg’s talent for provoking visceral emotional responses with quiet, understated imagery that her horror aesthetic is most clear. Each page unfolds cinematically, like a new scene with something waiting to jump out. The lack of names gets to you: the reader is implicated and framed by both the unnamed narrator and the ‘you’ of her love interest. By the end, the reader is the monster and the last girl left alive both.
“In New York I was always tired,” the narrator tells us. “In Berlin I was always hungry.” Like answering a call, my stomach rumbles.
Mikaella Clements is an Australian writer currently living in Berlin. Previously her work has appeared in Buzzfeed, Voiceworks, Overland, Catapult, and more. She is currently editing her first novel, a literary thriller about women, violence, and a ghost.