Memoir of a Murder, But So Much More

Book review: The Red Parts, by Maggie Nelson

The Red Parts defies categorization. In the broadest terms it’s a memoir, but it’s also true crime, literary theory, narrative nonfiction, social commentary, philosophy, and in case you’re in doubt about any of its genres or topics, it’s written with a beautiful poetic voice, just making it really enjoyable to read. It’s also a book partly about the writing of another book. Amazingly, unusually, it’s such a good example of all of these subjects – this kind of genre-bending work can at best fall short of one or more of its targets, and at worst, it’s really annoying and try hard-y. But this is fantastic at everything it tries.

Maggie Nelson is the niece of Jane Mixer, a woman who until recently was believed to be a victim of a serial killer who targeted young women around the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti area of Michigan in the late 1960s. But her case didn’t match the patterns of the others, and recent DNA evidence fingered another man completely unrelated to the other ‘Michigan Murders’, for which one man was convicted for one murder and it was generally accepted that he’d committed the rest, with some cloud of suspicion still hovering over Jane’s. (All these stories are very interesting in and of themselves – see my review of the recently rereleased true crime book of the case, The Michigan Murderswhich is also referenced in The Red Parts).

Nelson, a poet and professor, wrote Jane: a Murder, a book of poetry about the aunt she never met but whose life and death haunt her family. She thought the case was inactive as she wrote and researched, but turns out police had become aware of a mountain of DNA evidence against a Michigan nurse and family man. He’s taken to trial. It’s predictably emotionally devastating for the family, including Maggie’s grandfather, Jane’s father, now a widower in his 90s. The trial and her family’s place in it and decisions regarding it make for a central structure in the narrative, and a place in time that’s returned to throughout the book.

Maggie has tumultuous relationships, uncertainties in life and work, her own demons. She’s an exquisite writer, and she thoughtfully weaves the track of her own life into that of her aunt’s, examining what’s known and what remains a mystery, how it feels to be asked under bright spotlights to tell her “inspiring” story of finally discovering the identity of her aunt’s murder decades later, what she feels about justice. The truth is more that America has a deep captivating obsession with missing or murdered pretty white girls (see: Nancy Grace) and Jane’s case falls under this fascination.

She explores issues of the past and present philosophically but in a very direct, human way. I can’t relate to much of the specific content of what she went through, and yet I felt a familiar ache reading her stories and observations, as she muses out things about life and death. It sounds strange for what’s essentially a book about coming terms with the results of a murder trial, but there’s so much here about human nature, and managing grief and change, and almost as soon as I finished I was ready to reread it again. I’m not sure there’s even any way I can describe this book to really do it justice, besides to recommend it to anyone and everyone. I’ve never seen a book with so many divergent topics able to come together so seamlessly and end up seeming so right.

The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial
by Maggie Nelson
reissued April 5, 2016 by Graywolf Press, first published 2007

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