Roadhouse Blues by Malin James

This is a reaction to reading Roadhouse Blues by Malin James, not a review, and as such, it’s messy and as much about myself as it is about the book.

I was not prepared.

Once in a while, you get hit by a book. It lands a hefty punch to your gut and leaves you gasping for air, or choking on something big in the middle of the night while your partner snores softly and blissfully unaware of your struggles to swallow those words and catch some sleep.

I’m not even through yet with Malin James’ Roadhouse Blues, and it already wrecked me. Every single story made me weep, some with happiness, some of them not. I’m emotionally compromised.

James’ words are of that rare, powerful beauty that slides between your ribs like a tongue slipping between lips. They make you feel things you’ve forgotten how to feel, because your life has been so muted and dulled by depression that the only feeling left is that indistinct grayness of loss. Then you read Roadhouse Blues, and James’ words polish the dull away and leave you with bright emotions that cut and ring with clarity.

It’s a reaction like to a Sarah Waters book, when some sentences are so beautiful that you stop and catch your breath because they hit home so hard. It leaves you raw and so alive, with your emotions scrambled and put through the wringer, like Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things.

Some of the feelings James’ stories brought on are in some ways strange and unrelated to her stories, but visceral and intense. She gives us humans, with messy, human feelings and inner workings, so it’s only natural that my reaction would be messy and human.

When I had to put the book down because it was long after midnight and sometimes I try to be a responsible adult, knowing that I would have to get up early again, my insides were still caught in a rollercoaster of emotions.

I missed my own language. I miss it so much.

It’s that gut-twisting, pierce-the-heart ache you sometimes get when you grief something that’s no longer there, within your grasp, like Carly and Sarah miss Bobby in their story. James’ writing makes me miss my language. It unfolds with such ease. It’s the sort that makes you see and taste and smell a story, the sort that slips between your lungs and plants a tree, with roots reaching deep down and nestling between your pelvic bones. With each breath you take, you feel the words, they fill you up and you get tighter and tighter.

James is one of those writers that make me want to kneel and offer the vulnerable inside of my mouth to fill it up with words until they spill into my own story, as if it was possible to make my own words flow easier like that, more graceful.

I miss my language so much.

I stumble through the English language like a toddler on grubby legs, fighting with teeth and claws to stay on my legs and bend this unwieldy language into words that express what I see so clearly, yet what always remains blurry and resists me like old gum.

It’s a vain sentiment, in a way, because I chose this struggle. No one is keeping me from writing in my own language. It would be so much easier. It would also be a lot lonelier. I chose English to be heard, to share a community. It’s a reasonable decision, and I don’t regret to make it again with each new story. But once in a while, I read a book like Roadhouse Blues that shows me the magnitude of it, that shows me exactly what I’m giving up, that shows me the chasm lying between my fumbling words and the ease and beauty of what could be if I were free of the harness I chose to wear.

A while ago, I said that finding Malin James is like finding home, and Roadhouse Blues makes this truer than ever. It also comes with the same sharp pain only home can give us, because home is where we are most ourselves, as small and vulnerable and soft as nowhere else, and this can be as beautiful as it can be ugly and terrifying.

Roadhouse Blues is one of those books I will treasure forever. As much as I bawling my eyes out at the moment, I’m deeply grateful to Malin James that she undertook the painful journey to write this book.

Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.

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