Sarah Rose Etter’s Tongue Party: A Review by Dawn West

There is a particular scene in HBO’s Six Feet Under when Claire Fisher is in art class and her professor, Olivier, is raving about how sensual sensation is the most reliable gauge for evaluating a work of art; he insists that if a work of art makes you sick to your stomach, you know it’s good. I was reminded of this scene several times while reading Sarah Rose Etter’s chapbook Tongue Party.

Tongue Party plays on our most visceral emotions—hunger, fear, disgust, want for love. Etter’s narrators are all desperate for something, desperate to keep what they need or lose what they can’t bear to own. The tragic imagination of the young narrator in the opener, ‘Koala Tide’, was the most stunning aspect of the story. She was hungry enough to be colonized, she wanted enough to invent, and many of us have been, even as we grow up and old.

Want to get some ice cream tonight, kiddo?” he asked. “For the sunset?”
Eating ice cream and watching the sunset was my father’s favorite thing to do.
“Okay,” I said.
My father turned and walked back toward the blanket.
I was lying about the sunset and the ice cream. I knew once the koalas came, things would be different. I wouldn’t want to leave my koala home alone so soon. It would have to come with us, or else I would have to stay home and tend to it.

I knew once the koalas came, things would be different. I knew once I got into college, things would be different. I knew once I came out, things would be different. Whatever follows that sentence is an elegy to how unmoored our imaginations can be. Things, of course, were different, after the koalas came, but as always, we were fabulously wrong.

I did have two small reservations after reading Tongue Party—I felt that ‘Koala Tide’ was bit of a weak opener, despite it being mostly lovely. ‘Womb Peck’ follows ‘Koala Tide’, which I would say is the weakest story in the collection. It was also full of great writing, but it left me cold. Does every story have to get my heart punching; does every story have to switch on the skittering furnace inside me? Of course not, but I do make note when one doesn’t.

What I love most about Etter is that she’s a literary sniper—these brief fables are single shots to the dome. She needs no more than a page or two to bring you to your knees. My favorite story, the titular ‘Tongue Party’, which I originally read in this magazine’s virtual pages, embeds all those primal feelings into the reader—I felt sticky, queasy, starving from the narrator’s hunger, fear, disgust, want for love. Be forewarned if you have high blood pressure or palpitations—this story will do things to your heart.

The room starts sizzling with something, a vibration I’ve never felt before. The air gets hot and the oxygen gets rare. The musk of their bodies takes over my lungs. The fear in the back of my throat tastes like blood or copper pennies.
“We’re doing this all at once!” one man yells over the heads of the other men. I can only see his bushy eyebrows.
I look across the bar to my father’s face, bloated and red. “There’s enough to go around!” he yells, sounding desperate, protective, so much like a father that tears come and mingle with my makeup, creating a burning ring around each eye.

This frenzy, this captivity, these hungry men, this barely controlled pleading—this is the soul of Etter’s stories. She takes you into this disturbing world with her phrasing; she takes you to a place that is a rabbit hole, a witching well, an unframed mirror. I could go on and on about every story in this striking debut, from the disturbingly beautiful ‘Men Under Glass’ to the elegantly suffocating ‘Cake’ to the almost-slipstream tragedy of ‘Husband Feeder’, but I don’t want this to turn into a ten-thousand word screed. Sarah Rose Etter’s Tongue Party is a brave book from a writer who I’m certain will go on to release a plethora of even more bewitching tales.

Tongue Party is published by Caketrain.

Dawn West (b. 1987) reads, writes, and eats falafel in Ohio.


    • You’re welcome, Sarah! It was a pleasure to read and I can’t wait for more. 🙂

  • Bonnie DiSalvo

    Great Story and I’m enjoying the collection of stories. Looking forward to future publications from S Etter.