Chrysalis by Anna Metcalfe
“She has a power over the people who find her; once you’ve known her, it’s hard to go back to a time before.”
While there is always an attraction to a manic, frantic, crisis-led novel, Chrysalis instead unfolds in a still, calm, and even slow manner. This works to maintain an altogether creepier atmosphere. It is unnervingly quiet and chillingly calm, yet through the building tension you just know that something bad is on the horizon. The way the odd events of the book are juxtaposed against this measured and methodical pacing helps draw the reader in and consider the book’s central thesis – can a woman both live in society and truly be herself?
Chrysalis is about one unnamed woman’s journey from a functioning member of society to a guru-like recluse, told through three people who knew her along the way. The main character is fundamentally uncompromising to the point of being unkind, yet manages to make those around her enable her bizarre lifestyle. Through this manipulation, she makes those around her fall in a sort of love with her – and this experience is reflected by the reader. While we can see this character isn’t exactly likable, she does hold a certain fascination that keeps you on side.
The fact we only know this character and witness this story as outsiders looking in helps the book maintain an air of mystery. We are forced to make our impressions of this character solely out of what others tell us, giving us a strange distant feeling from the overarching premise of the book. In fact, it raises a question about the inherent unknowability of all other human beings. “They fail to see that she is capricious, that like any god or archetype, she’s as much yours as she is mine.” Even as our main character clearly explains her ideology and motives, we still find it all oddly difficult to understand.
Outside of the incredibly clever way the book’s form and content seem to support and mirror each other, Anna Metcalfe also takes on some other interesting themes in this small yet mighty novel. She reflects on influencer and wellness culture in a fresh and expansive way. One of the most common critiques of the world of social media content creation is how it’s riddled with fakeness, but Metcalfe considers this a little more deeply. As our main character curates her social media presence, she is also creating a new life and reality for herself, which is perhaps one of the least “fake” undertakings out there.
Metcalfe also examines trauma response. After coming out of an abusive relationship, our main character has to choose how to cope. And while her methods can seem a little extreme, it does open the old can of worms: how can any one of us deal with being alive and being a human?The stark, almost barren prose of the novel gives it a small but perfectly formed energy. Rather than offering any didacticism on how to live, Metcalfe instead thoroughly explores her central thesis without drawing any unnecessary conclusion. Whatever you do, people will watch and judge, so is there some power and happiness to be found in living entirely for yourself? Is it even possible? “For a long time, I was convinced that everyone lived that way–trying hard to do the right thing while pretending not to try at all. It had never occurred to me that there might be something powerful, profitable even, in being exactly who you were.”
Annie Walton Doyle is a 20-something writer based in Manchester, UK. She typically writes about beauty and other “personal aesthetics,” with a healthy dose of both social commentary and stupidity. When not touching makeup or reading books, she enjoys pubs, knitting, nature, and mysteries.