Amy Blakemore

Barrelhouse Reviews: The Welsh Fasting Girl by Varley O'Connor

Review by Amy Blakemore


At the center of Varley O’Connor’s novel The Welsh Fasting Girl is a single, horrifying question: what happens when an idea becomes more important than a person—and what happens when that person is a girl? Set in 19th-century Wales, four years before the establishment of the term “anorexia nervosa” by Sir William Gull in 1873, The Welsh Fasting Girl investigates and expands upon the true story of Sarah Jacob: a celebrity “fasting girl” of the time period who many believed could subsist without food or drink. 

When I set out to read this novel, I prepared myself for content about starvation, about compulsion, and about hunger. As a recovering anorexic, how could I not brave Sarah’s story—how could I not try to understand her refusal to eat, her ability to survive on so little? But O’Connor reminds us that Sarah’s story should, ultimately, not so easily be reduced to a story of proto-anorexia. Nor should our desire to read her narrative stem from a morbid or even well-intentioned impulse to diagnose yet another girl with any specific subset of “madness.” 

What O’Connor presents instead is a searing critique of the endless ways that Sarah’s parents, vicar, neighbors, town elders, medical professionals, and—last but certainly not least—the press were complicit in encouraging one girl’s coping mechanism to the point of her death. In The Welsh Fasting Girl,Sarah dies not from anorexia nervosa, hysteria, epilepsy, or any other nervous disorder, but from the simple fact that Wales, and the world, cared more about a symbol than a girl. 

In presenting Sarah’s story as historical fiction, O’Connor consciously stays close to history. She interjects her novel with key observations on Wales’s sociopolitical climate, details that help us understand how a young girl in the countryside could become a matter of national pride in the midst of an ongoing battle between the miraculous and religious and the scientific and secular. For readers without previous knowledge of this story, The Welsh Fasting Girl might read as nonfiction; O’Connor crafts letters and press announcements and extensive scenes of the trial of both of her parents for her manslaughter (a trial which would ultimately lead to their conviction). But then—despite its consistent peppering of historical knowledge, The Welsh Fasting Girl also takes pains to ensure that it doesn’t replicate the same offenses that wounded Sarah. O’Connor tells us her story through multiple perspectives: all female and all employing creative strategies to survive. Sarah’s sister, Margaret, becomes her protector and opens the story; an invented character, a journalist named Christine Thomas, becomes our guide into the world of Wales. Like readers, Christine desperately tries to pull a story out of Sarah—she wants to help; she wants to understand. In this fictional space, it is balm that she is able to, even if after Sarah’s death. It is one of the only places I have been reassured, in literature or otherwise, that when our morbid wonder towards eating problems ends, our understanding of the individual’s pain might begin. 

At 342 pages, The Welsh Fasting Girl isn’t a quick read, and the oft-dense prose and long list of characters may have benefited from a tighter edit. But instances of poetry break through in critical moments of the text, demanding the reader’s attention. In a pivotal turn near the middle, we finally hear the forgotten voice: Sarah’s. In this Beloved-like moment, O’Connor provides her fictional thesis for Sarah’s pain—the answer to why she was starving herself—in curious, mournful words. She gives Sarah, whose life and whose story died prematurely, and opportunity to grieve. “People said I was beautiful,” Sarah says; “what did that mean? Mountains were beautiful, food was delicious, rainstorms were ecstasy, wind spoke, and I listened and felt and ate and saw.” Sarah was once a child full of wonder, of longing, O’Connor reminds us. Her articulation of an etiology for Sarah’s starvation provides closure for an otherwise open-ended tragedy. As she writes in her postscript, “not a single doctor asked Sarah, ‘Why do you not eat?’” By writing from Sarah’s perspective, O’Connor works to correct our ongoing worship of women and girls—a worship that turns them into realm of the theoretical and away from that of flesh and blood, a realm that includes pain. 

O’Connor’s work should not be read narrowly from an eating disordered lens, but The Welsh Fasting Girl does indeed speak to and contribute to an increasing canon that seeks to complicate our understanding of how women use their bodies to reject, rewrite, and negotiate their pain. As readers will agree by the end of the novel, Sarah was not “hysterical,” as some characters diagnose her in the text (and in her life); rather, she was responding in a morbidly logical way to deep and incomprehensible abuse. Becky W. Thompson argues in A Hunger So Wide and So Deep thatmany women and girls “come to see their bodies as liabilities” from the sheer trauma of sexism and all its permutations, and develop stringent and unique practices surrounding food to mitigate that “liability.” Liz Eckerman describes in Critical Feminist Approaches to Eating Dis/Ordersthat self-starvation should be considered “a complex practice of embodied communication and active identity construction,” not simply something “deviant” or “sick.” As Sarah’s character simply puts in her monologue: “I wanted to tell you that I tried to live, I could not; forgive me.” 

Reading The Welsh Fasting Girl at times made me angry: how could a whole community—a whole country—believe starvation to be mystical? How could adults so willingly overlook Sarah’s agony? But then I remember: I lost a quarter of my body weight in our modern world, with official medical designations for a pain like mine, and even then, I was never formally diagnosed. 

Sarah’s original story is as surreal as it is tragic: she died in 1869, at the age of 12, after her parents agreed that she could be observed, around the clock, by medical professionals—a demand from scientific authorities who (accurately) believed she must have been sneaking food in order to survive. O’Connor’s novelization of Sarah’s life and early death reminds us that this infamous story is, ultimately, a story of abuse: her refusal to eat was encouraged, even blessed, by the town vicar, councilmen, her parents, and the countless strangers who made pilgrimage to her bedside to lay coins on her chest as a kind of penance, a religious offering. 

 And still—as opposed to making The Welsh Fasting Girla story of the seemingly endless list of people who were responsible for Sarah’s abusive life and early death, O’Connor uses the novel form to tell a story simply about the methods that women and girls employ simply to survive. And as a former fasting girl, I understand. “There may be other realities beyond what we see with our eyes,” Sarah says to the reporter, Christine. As in: are you looking at my body, or are you looking at me? Where does one start and the other begin? 

 I still ask myself the same things.

Amy Blakemore writes about the body. Her work has been published in The Kenyon Review, PANK, Wigleaf, The Indiana Review, and elsewhere, and she has received support from the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, WritingxWriters, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, MA. She is at work on her first novel, a horror story about girlhood, and a collection of essays on eating disorders, queerness, and television.

Barrelhouse Reviews: Be With Me Always by Randon Billings Noble

Review by Amy V. Blakemore


About an hour away from my childhood home, there is a butterfly conservatory where I used to stand and wait, still as possible, for a monarch or a moth to land on my shirt. The Butterfly Place: a simple name for a veritable portal, a tiny building that transported me. I used certain tricks: bright clothing, cucumber melon body mist—I was trying to make myself a flower, something attractive and wild. Sometimes, I spent whole visits just waiting; that was okay. Even if just one winged thing selected me, for a second, I felt winged, too.

Be With Me Always: Essays by Randon Billings Noble is a series of brushes with similarly bright, fleeting things—the moments that Noble remembers over and over. Through both traditional and experimental forms, she tries to lure them closer, pin them down, see their colors up close. Whether writing the memory of lazy a day on the Jersey Shore or the visceral image of smeared blood on book spines, Noble molds her prose into the shape she needs to crack a feeling open. What is perhaps more intriguing—and at times challenging—about Be With Me Always is that there is no central theme to these micro essays, which range in subject matter from ex-boyfriends to classic literature to motherhood to near-death experiences. The unifying thread is instead a unified method of inquiry, a willingness to transform and meet each subject on its own terms—and then to flit away.

Each memory is treated with equal care and caution in Be With Me Always; Noble does not assume a single one will land on her easily, no matter how seemingly simple. For writers who often begin a sentence only to stop themselves and say: is this important enough? is this loud enough?reading Noble’s work might feel like a personal love letter—like a book that gives you permission. Her work is a testimony that it is not always the big, traumatic moments that haunt us, but also the small, flirtatious ones that creak and stir, never fully revealing their ghosts. In “Marked,” for example, Noble explores her own stretch marks: “One is particularly deep. I poke my fingertip into its crater and wonder what I am touching, what layer of skin or tissue.” Here, the body itself is haunted: traces of where someone has been born, and something less effable has exited. The leftovers on the skin are no less significant than the act that formed them: they have to be read, excavated. In “The Island of Topaz,” Noble catalogues her grandmother’s rings with a similar meditative intensity: “Sitting in my apartment, I pour them out onto a plain white plate. I stir the pile with my finger.” We stir through garnet, onyx, her engagement ring, performing a special kind of summoning—the summoning of the living. The rings offer up questions, possibilities: could a diamond ring, as Pliny wrote, ward off insanity, Noble wonders—could it ward off dementia? This is only one question brought about by the stirring of the rings; as with the entire collection, her choice of form is both a result of and a facilitator of inquiry.  

Because Be With Me Always doesn’t limit itself to a specific subject matter, we move from quiet moments to loud moments; we are surprised by their sudden presence and color. Whether being sucked into a riptide, being flung from a motorcycle, losing a love, or creating a monster, we revisit moments in the author’s life and recognize their transformative potential. In a meditation on pregnancy and Frankenstein titled “Assemblage,” Noble writes, “To make a creature, start by stalking the dead…To make meat, kill the animal…To make a child, you need an egg and a sperm.” The labors of conception mutate, are revealed to possess an under-discussed violence. In “69 Inches of Thread, Scarlet and Otherwise,” the concept of murder is also interrogated and unexpectedly redefined as “to punish severely or be very angry with (when you said, “People who love each other don’t treat each other that way.” How can I not, now reading this, think of murder as a punishment of words? What other everyday killings have I written off as mundane? The winged things come close enough that we see their strangest parts: the beaded eyes, the black legs that are thin and impossibly strong.

Maybe Noble’s work reminds me so thoroughly of the conservatory because of the dedicated brevity of her essays. In 172 pages, we are presented with 26 essays, and each one makes the most use of its word count by leveraging unique forms. “Striking,” which ponders what we mean we say Heathcliff (a lover, or an idea?), is broken into 20 parts, because “there are twenty matches in a book.” “The Heart as a Torn Muscle,”catalogues the symptoms of heartbreak and proposes measures for selfcare: “If home remedies bring no relief in twenty-four hours, call your youngest and most bohemian friend.” Sometimes, Noble’s prose even breaks into poetry, all to penetrate the center of a feeling, and mutates back into the traditional essay form. Like a girl, perfumed, attempting to become a flower, Noble’s essays try to become the things they describe; her work reminds us of the labor, and the ingenuity, needed to thoroughly examine a life. Of course, certain essays feel too brief—perhaps only because I am greedy for more—but for readers of chapbooks and flash nonfiction outlets like Sweet: a Literary Confection, River Teeth’s “Beautiful Things,” and Brevity (where Noble was published), Be With Me Always will read like a best friend who understands you and your love of the quick, compressed, and strange.

Amy V. Blakemore writes about the body. Her work has been published in The Kenyon Review, PANK, Wigleaf, The Indiana Review, Redivider, and Paper Darts, and she has received support from the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, WritingxWriters, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, MA. She is at work on her first novel, a horror story about girlhood, and a collection of essays on eating disorders, queerness, and television. Follow her on twitter at