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.
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.
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.