The beginning of this book begins with staccato sentences that leave you stalling at every turn. Took so much effort to invest. To want to get to know. Xie. The endeavor, not quite worth it. Yet, I knew this writer. I knew that she had taken me on exhilarating rides that left no room to breathe, that she had plunged me within depths completely unimaginable to me before, that she had forced me to confront dark aspects of myself I had had no language to translate; I knew her and was moved between exhilaration and boredom. These were the two contrasting states I found myself in while reading The Seventh Mansion.
At its surface, The Seventh Mansion is the story of Xie (formerly named Alex), a 16 year old vegan activist, who is trying to live ethically in an extremely unethical world. We begin following Xie after he’s experiencing the disastrous consequences of trying to free minks from a farm and getting caught. On top of that, he’s dealing with the trauma of having witnessed an oil spill near his previous home in California, and how it completely changed how he saw the world around him. The scene with the oil spill is truly one of the most sense-enhancing scenes I’ve ever read. We smell, feel, and breathe what Xie is experiencing in that moment and the moments after this event. This section is haunting and visceral because we have seen events like these become normalized in our current events.
“...the problem is that the idea of clean water in the first place is unimaginable. The environment is always already trashed...that you want to serve it instead of destroy it ...you’re a ghost trying to save a corpse..”
Meijer takes the malleability of each sentence to form a bond between the reader and Xie so we can feel what Xie is feeling. It isn’t until Xie stumbles into a church deep in the forest and finds the skeleton remains of Pancratius (a boy made martyr for his refusal to slaughter a lamb) that the sentences begin to flow as Xie is finally able to find a connection and a love that he’s seen others experiencing. For your edification, there is no other word for having sex with a skeleton other than necrophilia. Yep, the story goes there and it’s eerily beautiful in its description. Xie steals Pancratius’ bones and begins a relationship with P, which is an aura-like figure that accompanies Xie and makes everything around him brighter.
The title “the Seventh Mansion” comes from famed mystic Teresa of Avila’s book Interior Castle. Meijer draws a parallel between mysticism in religious texts comparing it to the mysticism that Xie experiences with P, itself a form of religion mixed with a good deal of paganism. Some of my favorite sections were the philosophical questions that Xie asks himself and those around them about the kind of world we are living in. Those sections did leave me questioning and to this book’s point, I am still thinking about it days later. We follow an eco-group that’s more performance and talk than action, which Xie compares to Teresa of Avila’s book as well, a book that talks a lot about God and being good, but is less about actually doing good.
“In every room of every mansion Teresa describes the soul struggling alone; to get to the seventh mansion it must leave everyone and everything behind. But she never says why.”
The problem for me was that while Xie has no problem pointing out the privileges and hypocrisies of others, he spends less time focusing on his own. There is a part in the book where this is brought up but it doesn’t go further than that. The other problem is that Xie chose to change his name (and I never find out why, it was only said to have happened after the oil spill) and to me the name that he chose was appropriation. It was hard for me to be inside of his 16-year-old brain as he’s experiencing life that is constantly changing around him. This is truly a coming-of-age story and I can’t even imagine what it is like growing up in the world as we currently know it.
To be perfectly honest, I was utterly bored with the book which I wasn’t expecting since I have loved Meijer’s books in the past. I have gotten a chance to read her three previous books, Northwood, Rag, and Heartbreaker. Meijer has the ability to mire your emotions and thoughts in an experience that makes you look at red panties, fairy tales, raging fires, and so many other mundane things in a different light. Meijer has the power to create atmospheres that stay with you from beginning to end, her stories have twists and turns that turn every story into a performance that deserves a standing ovation. Usually when I read Meijer I am plunged into stories that leave me breathless, and they are chilling tales that haunt me when I flip the last page. She manages to take the twisty and dark aspects of your soul and have them reflected within the pages.
I couldn’t find myself in this bildungsroman. The story of Xie wasn’t reflective but I do strongly urge you to read it. There is a culmination in the end where Xie takes actions against a deforestation that’s happening near his home that calls into question whether extreme action/defense is needed when extreme destruction is taking place. We continue to walk this world carrying an earthly corpse that might be too late to save. Xie takes every daily action with the burden of how it affects the world around him, and this was so tiresome to hold.
What does it say about my generation though that I hadn’t thought this way when I was growing up? I remember growing up and thinking that hair spray was what was solely causing the hole in the ozone and my immediate action was to stop using it. It wasn’t a burden to stop using this item, and yet the life that Xie led left so many of the comforts I know behind. I couldn’t imagine leading this life and yet the world that surrounds me shows me daily how it is crumbling around me. Extreme and daily actions towards the world might be what’s needed to save the corpse and Xie’s way of life might be the only way to save it (minus the skeleton sex).
The Seventh Mansion
By Maryse Meijer
192 pages. 2020.