Review of All of Me by Iseult Murphy

I’ve long been a fan of Iseult Murphy. She writes with extraordinary clarity, intelligence, and wit. Best of all, she always ventures deep into her characters’ psyches. These are not two-dimensional plot devices, but living and breathing beings with vast emotional interiors.

All of Me is unquestionably the best book that Iseult Murphy has ever written. It not only shows massive growth as a writer but also reaches the highest level of art: transcendence.

One doesn’t need to know Iseult Murphy to be able to tell that All of Me is written about an issue that is deeply personal to the author. The compassion Murphy shows for her protagonist, Margaret, a 390 pound woman struggling with self-love and self-image, is palpable and heartrending. This doesn’t mean Margaret is spared, however, from Murphy’s ferociously sharp observations on the idiosyncrasies and hypocrisies of humans struggling to desperately improve themselves. Though she describes this book as "body-horror", and there's certainly an element of that, I think the real horror is in the human mind, which Iseult Murphy excavates expertly. 

Murphy’s development of her theme is masterfully expressed in the repetition of the phrase “Eat the elephant one bite at a time”. There is triple perhaps even quadruple entendre in this. Margaret is mockingly called Miss Elephant by her coworkers due to her weight. Yet, in the original saying, the elephant represents the big problems in life we have to break down into little bite-sized chunks in order to overcome. It’s also ironic that Margaret uses a metaphor for eating in order to describe the gruelling and slow process of weight-loss!

Margaret is desperate to lose weight, to change. And one day, someone makes her an offer that is simply too good to be true. Eating the elephant is laborious, painful, and taking too long. What if there was a quicker way to shed the weight? Desperate people will do desperate things. Margaret accepts the offer, a Faustian pact, and this is what truly kickstarts the narrative into the next level, because Margaret gets a great deal more than she bargained for.

I don’t want to give too much away—though what comes next is on the back-cover of the book—but suffice to say Murphy enters Freudian territory in which suddenly three facets of Margaret become independent. There’s Dot, who functions like a merciless and rational ego. There’s Peggy, who is always trying to look after other people but at the expense of all else, a kind of super-ego. And then there’s Daisy, eternally frightened, and only capable of eating her problems away, the primitive id. These three “aspects” also represent more personalised facets of Margaret. Dot is Margaret’s hardworking attitude. Peggy is Margaret’s caring side. Daisy is her defensive mode. By blending the individual and personal with the archetypal and psychological, Murphy achieves a compelling interplay. The fates of these “three” women who are really one matter to us, we care about each of them, even when they start doing despicable things.

Murphy writes the whole book in first person, heading the chapters with names so we know who is speaking. The genius of this is how it relates to the plot. We are reading about one woman divided into three, so it makes sense that the book is first person and not third. Yet, at the same time, Murphy reflects the differences between the characters with subtle changes in the narrative style. They all feel like they are part of the same person, yet we also begin to see the deviations between them. The skill it takes to do this is jaw-dropping.

Structurally this book works like Henry James’s Turn of the Screw. At times, it is unputdownable narrative. Each chapter ramps up the weirdness, the tension, and the stakes. Yet, despite the increasing strangeness, Murphy somehow manages to keep the whole thing grounded. Even when we receive a certain revelation about who a character truly is—which is masterfully done—we still remain in the realm of the believable. Perhaps this is because the novel remains so psychologically true.

Murphy uses her central plot device to explore so many ideas: the effect of low self-esteem on our lives, solipsism and how self-criticism can be a form of poison, our defence mechanisms (whether they be eating to avoid problems or attacking those we perceive to threaten us), and what it truly means to love oneself.

The ending of All of Me is my favourite ending Murphy has ever written and deeply moving. This is where the “transcendence” element comes in, because I felt like the book not only emotionally stirred me but also caused me to reflect upon my own life and desire to improve it. In fact, Murphy’s denouement ranks up there with the finale of Grady Hendrix’s My Best Friend’s Exorcism, which is some of the highest praise I can offer.

All of Me is an amazing horror novella—one of the best I have read in a long time—and in truth it deserves to be on the Richard and Judy best-seller list. At once horrifying, funny, empowering, and viciously self-deprecating, it’s a true expression of the human spirit in all its glory and shame, and something that you absolutely have to read.

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