Difficult Women – Roxane Gay

There’s an easy way to find out whether or not you’re a difficult woman according to the title story in Roxane Gay’s debut collection: check your pulse.

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Death makes them more interesting. Death makes them more beautiful. It’s something about their bodies on display in final repose – eyes wide open, lips blue, limbs stiff, skin cold. Finally, it might be said, they are at peace.

Although still not safe from the patriarchal gaze.

Societal structure and its oppression of women forms the backbone of the collection. Beginning with ‘I Will Follow You’ in which two sisters – Carolina and Savvie – whose relationship is so close that when Carolina’s husband moves to Nevada and Savvie doesn’t want to go, they remain in California together. And ending with ‘Strange Gods’ in which an unnamed narrator tells the man who’s asked him to marry her ‘There are things you do not know about me. These things are not inconsequential’ before relating the various ways in which she self-harms and the reason for her behaviour.

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When Gay’s good, she’s very very good. In ‘Open Marriage’, the narrator eats a tub of sour yoghurt to prove a point as her husband declares he wants an open marriage. The payoff is delicious and had me punching the air.

‘Requiem for a Glass Heart’ details a relationship between a glass woman and her stone thrower husband. She wants space from his protection, from her husband ‘who sees too much and loves too carefully’ but discovers he seeks his own space too.

‘I Am a Knife’ and ‘The Sacrifice of Darkness’ both involve women dealing with tragedies. The first has a wife hunting with her husband, attempting to fill a void:

When the buck was finally dead, I used one fingernail, cutting the creature open from his neck to his rear. His flesh fell open slowly, warm innards steaming out into the cold air. The air became sharp and humid with the stench of death surrounded by prayer. I am a knife.

While the latter is a rewriting of the Icarus myth focusing on what happened after Hiram Hightower, a miner who couldn’t face another day underground, flew into the sun, as told by his future daughter-in-law:

In the early days of darkness, we thought it might end. We thought we might once again see the sun, feel its golden shine holding our skin. The bright red crease in the sky pulsed, and like the sun, that crease grew smaller and smaller until it disappeared. Scientists tried to make sense of what happened to the sun. It was nearly impossible for them to believe a man could be so full of darkness he needed to swallow all the light of the sun.

Thematically, the stories are about relationships – with spouses, siblings, parents, lovers, ourselves; male treatment of women; whites’ treatment of blacks.

In ‘North Country’, an engineering lecturer moves from Nebraska to Michigan and has to deal with constant microaggressions.

“Are you from Detroit?”

I have been asked this question twenty-three times since moving to the area. In a month, I will stop counting, having reached a four-digit number. Shortly after that, I will begin telling people I have recently arrived from Africa.

However, ‘La Negra Blanca’ is the sole mishit. William Livingstone III is obsessed with black women and black culture. He visits a strip club where he watches Sierra, a mixed-race woman who passes for white, dance three times a week. The story lacks any subtlety and is less effective for it. It’s a shame in a collection which also highlights how sharp Gay can be elsewhere in her writing.

Overall, Difficult Women is a satisfying and, at times, a superb read. It’s impossible not to read these stories and feel that Gay gets it. She conveys what it’s like to be a living, breathing woman. The title story is divided into different types of difficult women and then into vignettes. ‘What a Crazy Woman Thinks About While Walking Down the Street’ ends like this:

She once told a boyfriend about these considerations and he said, “You are completely out of your mind.” She told a new friend at work and she said, “Honey, you’re not crazy. You’re a woman.”

 

Thanks to Corsair for the review copy.

 

 

Ones to Read in 2017

One of the joys of running this blog is getting to read advance copies of books I’ve been looking forward to as well as titles from new writers being published in the first half of 2017. I’ve read a whole host of books, mostly fiction – novels, novellas, short stories, and I’ve selected ten I think are must reads.

All publication dates are correct as of 2nd January 2017 for UK publication.

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Homegoing – Yaa Gyasi

Effia Otcher and Esi are sisters, unaware of each other’s existence. In 1775, Effia’s mother, who beats her and is manipulative, conspires to marry her to one of the white slave traders. Effia goes to live with him in Cape Coast Castle, unaware that Esi is in the dungeon, packed tight with other women – alive and dead – waiting to be shipped to America. Gyasi then follows the two women’s timelines through to the present day. The story alternates between West Africa and America, each chapter told by one of the offspring of the previous character in that branch of the family tree and becoming a guide to the creation of black as a race. It’s an incredible piece of work. If you only read one book in 2017, make it this one.

Published 5th January 2017 by Viking

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Homesick for Another World – Ottessa Moshfegh

If you thought the title character in Eileen was despicable, wait until you meet those who populate Moshfegh’s first short story collection. From a teacher who spends her summer break slumming it with drug addicts to the old white dude who tries to hit on his young neighbour to the girl who’s convinced she needs to kill a particular person in order to go to a better place, all of Moshfegh’s characters are unlikeable in some way. But that’s also because they’re real, their lives like ours. And that’s the beauty of her work. This is a brilliant collection; Moshfegh’s rapidly establishing herself as one of the best writers of her generation.

Published 12th January 2017 by Jonathan Cape

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First Love – Gwendoline Riley

Neve, a writer in her mid-thirties, is married to Edwyn, an older man. She documents their turbulent relationship alongside an earlier reacquaintance with an ex-boyfriend and the relationships she had with her mother and father. All are manipulative and abusive in different ways and to varying degrees. Riley’s writing is razor sharp. She places the reader in Neve’s position and it never feels less than real. Packs a literal and metaphorical punch, leaving space for interpretation and discussion.

Published 2nd February 2017 by Granta

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The End We Start From – Megan Hunter

As the sea-level rises around the UK, a woman gives birth to a boy her and her husband name Z. They leave for the mountains where her husband, R, grew up. Before long, queues are forming for food and basics and the family starts to disintegrate as R mistrusts the authorities and the unnamed narrator wants to protect Z. Taut, beautifully written, this tense novella will keep you gripped. I read it in one sitting and returned to it the following day.

Published 18th May 2017 by Picador

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Little Deaths – Emma Flint

Queens, NYC, 1965. Ruth Malone’s in a bitter custody battle with her ex-husband when her two children Frankie, five, and Cindy, four, go missing from her apartment and are later found murdered. When the police discover Malone drinks, dates and takes care of herself they’re determined to pin the murders on her. A page-turner which explores patriarchal attitudes to women who don’t play the angel. Rage-inducing but gripping.

Published 12th January 2017 by Picador. 

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Stay With Me – Ayòbámi Adébáyò

When Yejide fails to conceive, her husband, Akin, is convinced by his mother-in-law to take a second wife who will deliver the grandson she so desperately desires. Yejide is horrified at becoming a first wife and Akin feels little better about the arrangement but it will change both of their lives and their marriage for better and for worse. Told from alternating points of view Adébáyò explores the effect of patriarchal society on women and men with thriller-like pace and twists. Gripping and thoughtful.

Published 2nd March 2017 by Canongate.

cover1Take Courage: Anne Brontë and the Art of Life – Samantha Ellis

If you enjoyed the BBC’s To Walk Invisible over Christmas, or can only name two of the Brontë sisters and their work, or have long been a fan of Anne and are glad someone else gets it, then Samantha Ellis’ investigation into who Anne Brontë was, her work and why we know so little about her is one for you. Ellis examines Anne through those who were closest to her and her two novels Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. The Anne Brontë reassessment/revival begins here.

Published 12th January 2017 by Chatto & Windus

 

Difficult30644520 Women – Roxane Gay

Third mention for the ‘p’ word but the women in Roxane Gay’s short story collection are only difficult because they break the rules the patriarchy imposes on them. Often they’re punished for it though – from the sisters who are kidnapped to the stripper followed home by a client – and question their worth to society. Written in clear, brutal prose, Gay shows how race, class, sexuality and gender affect average women every single day.

Published 3rd January by Corsair

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The Things We Thought We Knew – Mahsuda Snaith

Ravine Roy has chronic pain syndrome and hasn’t left her mother’s council flat since her best friend, Marianne, disappeared ten years ago. Now she’s eighteen, her mum’s determined to get her out, starting with voting in the General Election. But Ravine’s got other things to worry about such as writing to Marianne, wondering who her mother’s companion is, and the noises coming from the unoccupied flat next door. If you loved The Trouble with Goats and Sheep or My Name Is LeonThe Things We Thought We Knew is your summer 2017 read.

Published 15th June 2017 by Doubleday

4111fppgtel-_ac_ul320_sr198320_See What I Have Done – Sarah Schmidt

Schmidt takes the infamous case of Lizzie Borden and explores what might have happened on the days surrounding the murder of Borden’s father and stepmother. The narrative moves between Lizzie, her sister Emma, the maid Bridget and a young man called Benjamin, unknown to all but the Borden’s Uncle John, their late-mother’s brother. Schmidt creates a claustrophobic atmosphere placing the reader in the centre of a house stifling with heat and tensions. Gripping.

Published 2nd May by Tinder Press