UK Publisher: Corsair
Genre: short stories, literary fiction, magic realism
The women in these stories live lives of privilege and of poverty, are in marriages both loving and haunted by past crimes or emotional blackmail. A pair of sisters, grown now, have been inseparable ever since they were abducted together as children, and must negotiate the elder sister’s marriage. A woman married to a twin pretends not to realize when her husband and his brother impersonate each other. A stripper putting herself through college fends off the advances of an overzealous customer. A black engineer moves to Upper Michigan for a job and faces the malign curiosity of her colleagues and the difficulty of leaving her past behind.
From a girls’ fight club to a wealthy subdivision in Florida where neighbors conform, compete, and spy on each other, Gay delivers a wry, beautiful, haunting vision of modern America.
Difficult Women is not a book I would have necessarily chosen on my own. I tend to prefer longer narratives over collections of short stories, something with a continuing plot that holds my attention for the whole book. This was a book group selection, and a definite example of reading outside my comfort zone.
Gay is an excellent writer – each of her stories feels palpably real, immediate and visceral. But the majority of her stories deal with fairly unpleasant subject matter. There is a lot of talk of sexual abuse, of assault, of unhealthy, unhappy relationships. I actually found this a little wearing, the depth of cynicism in this collection seemed unrelenting, so the handful of stories with happy relationships were a welcome relief, even if they included their own myriad of other issues. Members of my book group found some of the stories triggering, so please be aware of that should you read this.
One of the questions that was considered during book group was “what makes a difficult woman?” The commonality between the women in this book seemed to be that they all are dissatisfied with how the world views them, with how their lives have developed. It seemed to me that people ascribe them as ‘difficult’ because they don’t and won’t conform to the standards that society demands of them, and instead construct their own standards. They often face anger as a result, and aggression, or rejection. There are very few happy endings.
Whilst the vast majority of men in the book are at best scraping through the criteria for ‘decent human being’, and at worst unrelentingly awful, I found the relationships between women in the book to be an interesting contrast. Mostly this was demonstrated between sisters, with bonds that were complex and intense. Some of these were formed directly as a response to the way they had been treated by men. Is this an allegory for modern life? It certainly feels that way, given the recent women’s marches and gender equality campaigns.
The stories included in the book are:
- I Will Follow You
- Water, All Its Weight
- The Mark of Cain
- Difficult Women
- La Negra Blanca
- Baby Arm
- North Country
- Requiem for a Glass Heart
- In the Event of my Father’s Death
- Break all the way Down
- Bad Priest
- Open Marriage
- A Pat
- Best Features
- Bone Density
- I am a Knife
- The Sacrifice of Darkness
- Noble Things
- Strange Gods
They range from hyper realistic to strangely fantastic, reminding me a little of the magic realism found in Angela Carter’s work. In fact, there is a lot in this book which is similar to Carter, although perhaps Gay’s work is a little less extreme in subject matter. The Sacrifice of Darkness was my favourite of all of them – it seemed more gentle than the others, and there was a sense of happiness and hope right at the centre of it which felt like a relief after the intensity of the previous stories.
This is not a book I can say I enjoyed, but it is a book I am glad I have read.
- Excellent writing style – evocative and immersive, phrases and images will stick with you long after reading.
- Lots of potentially triggering content. Trigger warnings for rape, sexual assault, child death, violent imagery, abusive language, amongst other things.
- Generally quite cynical. I felt a little drained after reading, and whilst I could recognise the work was good, I didn’t feel I didn’t feel comfortable. But the subject matter isn’t comfortable, or any of the recurring themes, so that is probably fitting.
- If you like Angela Carter’s work, this may be for you.
Rating: 3/5 – I am glad I read it, but I didn’t enjoy it as such, and I wouldn’t necessarily read it again.