STARRED REVIEW
February 2023

I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself

By Marisa Crane
Review by
Some books have the power to wake you up, shake you out of the old and push you toward something new and exciting and a little scary. I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself is one of those books.
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Marisa Crane’s debut novel is a remarkable feat of speculative fiction, its premise so strangely familiar that to call it speculative feels like a misnomer. I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself is set in an off-kilter version of the United States, but the emotional truths it untangles are so sharp that its intricate world building feels less like fiction and more like an excavation of the country we already live in.

In a U.S. governed by the ominous Department of Balance, criminals are given an extra shadow instead of being incarcerated, which serves as a reminder to themselves and everyone they meet of what they’ve done. This system, enforced by state-run surveillance, creates a culture of pervasive public shame: Shadesters, as they’re called, are shunned wherever they go and have few civil rights.

Kris is a Shadester whose wife dies while giving birth to their daughter, who is immediately given a second shadow because of the death. Grieving and unprepared, Kris stumbles through motherhood in a daze. She worries and wonders and analyzes, observes her daughter, gets lost in her own brain. Her first-person narration is dreamy and frenetic, so intimate that it’s often difficult for the reader to bear, as well as nearly impossible to know how much time is passing. 

How does a person repent and forgive and reinvent? What kind of healing can only occur in community, and what kind of healing requires privacy? What happens when mistakes and misunderstandings are punished in the same way as abuse and deliberate violence? These are the turbulent, murky and unsolvable questions that roil inside of Kris, that define her life—but slowly, the kid grows up, and Kris is drawn back into the world. 

Ruptures and tension propel the plot forward, but there’s a deliberate, underlying slowness to the story, too. On the surface, it’s all explosive force; underneath, it’s introspective and intimate. And always, Crane’s prose is gorgeous. Short, searing sentences depict ordinary moments perfectly, while long, melancholy meanderings are broken up by bleak humor and inventive pop quizzes that speak to the impossibilities of living through grief.

I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself is an assured and surprising ode to queer family. It’s an untame story about motherhood and survival and the quiet, daily work of building a livable world. It’s about what humans can bear and what we can get used to, about the choices we make and that are made for us, about the worst things we do to each other and the most astonishing. Some books have the power to wake you up, shake you out of the old and push you toward something new and exciting and a little scary. This is one.

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