I’m not always a short story person. I don’t read a lot of them, so when I do decide to pick up a book like this, you know there’s a good reason. In this case, a collection of stories billed as genre-defying representations of the female experience. Honestly, that’s an almost impossible description for me to pass up. And it was accurate AF, let me tell you!
As usual for my short story collection reviews, I’m going to give a little blurb about each. But before that, let me just say a few things in general. Regarding to the genre – the billing was right. This defies categorization: speculative, ghost (ish), thriller, contemporary, sci-fi, satire and probably more. It’s got an overall otherworldly vibe that sits over you while you read, an aura that feels almost like it is seeping into your bones. It’s the perfect atmosphere for the stories the author is telling. This was one of the darkest, weirdest, and hardest to read collections of anything that I have ever experienced. Every story had a bit of the surreal, of sexy (or sexiness, maybe, if you want to describe it that way), and of terror – in various combinations. There were some that hit so hard it was almost hard to breathe while reading. And there were others that I wanted badly to understand, and felt like I almost did, had almost grasped some deeper meaning from, some greater message, but then at the last second it would slip away and I was left a little lost and unsure. It was frustrating, but also possibly on purpose? I mean, even as a woman, I cannot understand (and should not expect to) the experiences of every other woman. I’m going to choose to interpret it that way because that fits this collection more than anything else I can think of. And because it’s true. Finally, the general normalcy inherent in the fluidity of sexuality between stories was refreshing, representative and definitely one of the things I liked most about the collection as a whole.
The Husband Stitch: This was a great opening story, and one of my overall favorites. It’s beautifully sexual, an inspiration for women everywhere to pursue their own pleasure. And the creepy fairy tale metaphor sort of stories that are sprinkled throughout this piece are weird and wonderful. As for the overall story, the ribbon as a metaphor for men’s need to control/have it all is phenomenally written. Even though our main character is, sexually, everything he wants (the usual argument for/by men) he cannot get over NOT being allowed to touch her ribbon. That he is at base a “good man,” as in not obviously abusive or something else that could “easily” instill a reason to deny him, means that she can find no reason not to give him something/everything of herself. Despite the fact that it just being something that she isn’t comfortable sharing should be reason enough to “allow” her to hold back or keep it for herself. And that this vague need to save him from his own discomfort/need leads to her giving too much of herself, more than she can get back, and it becomes her end – it’s profound in such an important, but subtle way. Wow.
“…there are true things in this world observed only by a single set of eyes.”
Inventory: Another of my favorites! A post-apocalyptic type story, told through the lens of an inventory of sexual partners and the desperation to feel in the midst of a crisis. I loved the different situations and relationships, and how they were used as a vehicle to measure passing of time and changing environments. The juxtaposition of physical connection and emotional isolation was fascinating and well developed.
Mothers: This was written in gorgeously descriptive terms, but I have to say I didn’t really understand this one quite as much. That could have been the point, since it was difficult to tell what was real, what was past or present or future, or what was just completely made up. But it does address a topic that, truly I don’t think I’ve ever seen before in mainstream literature: interpersonal violence in same-sex relationships. And that is incredibly important.
Especially Heinous: This was one of my least favorite stories I think. It was like, a phantasm-ish live-tweet of Law and Order: SVU episodes. And I have to say I’ve never read anything like this before, but it was a strange experience. I have seen some episodes of the show, but not enough to really know what parts of this story were “real” or what was embellished or added by the author. That was a weird place to be in for me, as a reader. However, one thing I did really like was the clear and heavy weight of the haunting pain of witnessing and dealing with such terrible acts on a daily basis – the pressure and guilt of finding justice or letting people down. The horror of sexual violence is real and pervasive and all encompassing and affects everyone, both obvious and subtle, shared and hidden. That this story does end with a little bit of hope delicately suggests an end to the cycle and the possibility of absolution.
“People can be monsters, or vulnerable as lambs. They – no, we – are perpetrators and victims at the same time.”
“The sound of pattering water released from a watering can is so beautiful she wants to cry. Time to make something grow.”
Real Women Have Bodies: This one was awesomely creepy. There is definitely some kind of metaphor in this one, but I had trouble putting my finger on it. Definitely something related to the invisibility of women and the struggle against that. But also with a commentary on the perceived shallowness of women in relation to fashion, and how used we are by that industry. Perhaps? Regardless, this one will make you think and is very affecting.
Eight Bites: This is a heartbreaking story about being dissatisfied in your own skin based on the standards of others. And it’s about deciding to make a large change based on those “other” opinions that causes you to completely lose a part of yourself that you were never comfortable admitting the importance of before. But it’s too late and the regret is real… It also highlights how, when you are unhappy with yourself, your relationships with other people (like your children) suffer for it. And all of this, though based on a permanent change in this story, can also be true in cases of long-lasting attempts at temporary change that become to the focus of your life to exclusion of all other things, including things that used to make you happy. It’s honestly super depressing, but carries a moving message about the importance of self-acceptance.
“If you’re brave, you’ll turn your body over to this water that is practically an animal, and so much larger than yourself.”
The Resident: This was a crazy mental/psychological twisty sort of thriller, not necessarily scary, but more meant to incite fear due to lack of knowing what is real. This is the fear of finding out who you truly are, and coming to terms with it, despite what anyone else thinks or expects of you (and in fact sometimes flying right in the face of that). It’s the idea that intimate knowledge and possible acceptance of yourself can actually break you, but also can help you find something deeper in yourself to share with the world. Or at least, that what I got out of it. This was a harder one to understand/follow for me, and not necessarily one of my favorites in the collection.
“Were we driving toward the storm, a photograph of a side mirror would reveal light in the past, and darkness in the future.”
“What is worse: being locked outside of your own mind, or being locked outside of it?”
Difficult at Parties: OMG what a story to end one! This one was one of the best, in my opinion…but also, for me, the hardest to read. It was visceral, heart wrenching, haunting, real. It was, terrifyingly, absolutely and completely recognizable. Although this whole collection is about expectations and violence against women, this one was the most direct, addressing the “recovery” of a woman after an assault. The violation of safety, of self, the loss of who you were before, the detachment from…everything… It’s just, almost too much. And that is what makes it the one most needed.
Overall, I definitely recommend this edgy, brilliant collection from a real visionary writer!