Before Maggie Nelson was born her mother’s sister was murdered in a shockingly violent way, an unsolved crime which overshadows the family in the subsequent decades and which Nelson has previously explored in her collection of poetry Jane: A Murder. In 2005 the case is unexpectedly re-opened, The Red Parts, as described in its subtitle, is an autobiography of the trial that follows.
Nelson’s previous book, The Argonauts is a combination of theory and memoir, The Red Parts has these features too, but also mixes in the generic conventions of true crime.
This true crime element is the driving force behind the story, and its tropes seem reassuringly familiar, the hardworking cop, the witness who first discovered the body, the gory description of the aftermath of violence done to a woman’s body. Although of course in the wise hands of Nelson these ideas are not presented without emotionally thoughtful analysis.
When asking her mother why she didn’t tell Maggie that she had had a minor accident, her mother questions what would be the point in doing so. Maggie replies that, “Some things might be worth telling simply because they happened.” (p31) Indeed Red Parts questions the ethics over who has the right to tell a story, does she have the right to write about Jane when she never met her, for example? Nelson also discusses whose stories get told at all, by anyone, is Jane’s murder still receiving attention from TV channels interested such as 48 Hours Mystery, and crime bloggers because she was pretty, white and middle-class?
Although she never met her aunt, her violent end shapes her mother’s way of bringing up two daughters, as well as the way her mother reacts to Maggie’s father’s death years later. Nelson is thorough in her analysis of what it means to live under the daily perceived threat of masculine violence, present because of her aunt’s murder, but also just because she’s a woman, so of course it’s there anyway. She is reminded in the gruesome true crime documentaries of course but also in most mainstream culture, Taxi Driver is a particularly difficult film for her and her mother to see, and she reads James Ellroy’s My Dark Places, a book about Ellroy’s murdered mother and his, “subsequent sexual and literary obsession with vivisected women.”(p69), alongside her investigations.
Nelson’s prose deals with the book’s difficult questions with a deftness that, of course, doesn’t ever answer anything, but makes The Red Parts a special and effecting read.