Book Review: Difficult Women, Roxane Gay (2017)

January 9th, 2017 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

Stories about survival; stories we need now more than ever.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free ARC for review through Netgalley. Trigger warning for domestic violence, child abuse, and rape.)

There once was a man. There is always some man.

You too have always been popular. I have seen the evidence in your childhood bedroom, meticulously preserved by your mother. Even now, you have packs of men following you, willing to make you their strange god. That is the only thing about you that scares me.

“I want a boy who will bring me a baby arm.”

“Honey, you’re not crazy. You’re a woman.”

Difficult Women brings together twenty-one short stories by Roxane Gay, all of which have previously been published elsewhere (or multiple elsewheres), most in slightly different forms and some under different titles. (I included the TOC at the bottom of this review; alternate titles are listed last, in parentheses.) However, the publications are so varied that it’s unlikely that you’ve seen, read, and/or own them all.

This is actually rather surprising to me, since the stories – published over a span of ~5 years – gel so well together. It really feels like each one was written specifically with this anthology in mind. The collection’s namesake, “Difficult Women,” perfectly encapsulates the spirit of the whole. Like the short story, this is book about loose women and frigid women; difficult women and crazy women; mothers and wives, daughters and dead girls. Women who have faced the unspeakable – rape and sexual assault; miscarriages or the death of a child; abuse and self-harm; alcoholism and alienation – and come out the other side. Not unscathed, but alive. These are stories of survival.

Usually I find anthologies to be somewhat uneven, but not so here. Every story grabs you by the heart and threatens to squeeze until it pops, right there in your chest cavity. Gay’s writing is raw and naked; grim, yet somehow, impossibly, imbued with hope. While some are straight-up contemporary, other tales are a strange, surreal mix of the real and unreal: In “I Am a Knife,” a woman fantasizes about cutting her twin’s fetus out of her body and transferring it to her own, the way she once did with the heart of a drunk driver who collided with their car, nearly killing her sister.

Even stranger is “The Sacrifice of Darkness,” in which the miner Hiram Hightower uses his savings to buy an airship to the sun. Upon approach, he inadvertently sucks up all its light, to fill the gaping hole that loneliness and a life spent in darkness carved into his spirit. His wife and son – and his son’s wife and their child – would pay the price for his selfishness. And yet they also hold the promise of a brighter future for all. Therein lies the impossible hope.

I also loved “Noble Things,” a dystopia in which a second secession of the South led to the New Civil War. Parker is bound to the South not by his beliefs, but by family: after a career in the US military that included tours in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran, his father the General led the Southern army to victory. Nevertheless, appalled by the scarcity, poverty, and ignorance in the South, Parker and wife Anna sent their son North, to live with her parents. Will he have the courage to embrace one of his family’s convictions and join Anna and “the boy” on the other side of the divide?

As I read through the stories, several common themes began to emerge: many are set in the North Country, against the backdrop of mining; incorporate the death of a child; and/or feature twins. Rape is also a common element, and one that Gay handles with care and nuance. Gay avoids graphic details, instead centering attention on the survivors and their methods of coping with the trauma and navigating this new reality. Given current events – I’m penning this review a mere three days after the 2016 election – these stories are more important, and potentially triggering, than ever.

The anthology opens with “I Will Follow You,” a sucker punch to the heart. When Savvie was ten, she was abducted by a pedophile; older sister Carolina, a witness to the crime, threw herself in the van so that her sister wouldn’t have to survive it alone. Years later, they are free and financially independent women – who never leave each others’ sides. “La Negra Blanca” tackles the fetishization of women of color, misogynoir, white male privilege, and the objectification of sex workers, while “How” is about twins from Michigan who figure out how to escape their broken lives (don’t be afraid to leave all your baggage behind, abusive family members included).

The loop is closed with the final story, “Strange Gods,” in which a woman who was gang-raped as a child attempts to open herself up to a healthy relationship after years of abusive relationships. The imagery here is especially compelling/horrifying, as she was lured to a deer blind by a boy she considered a friend, hunted like prey, violated, and then splayed open like a slaughtered deer on the exam table. This story in particular should be disseminated to every police department with a rape kit backlog; picture: repeated forced readings, à la A Clockwork Orange.

Difficult Women is a difficult book to read, but one that’s vital and necessary and timely in a way that I didn’t anticipate when I requested a copy on Netgalley.

 

Table of Contents

I Will Follow You * 1 (“The Weight of Water”)
Water, All Its Weight * 23
The Mark of Cain * 29
Difficult Women * 35 (“Important Things”)
FLORIDA * 45 (“Group Fitness”)
La Negra Blanca * 61
Baby Arm * 77
North Country * 83
How * 101
Requiem for a Glass Heart * 117
In the Event of My Father’s Death * 125
Break All the Way Down * 129
Bad Priest * 149
Open Marriage * 159
A Pat * 161
Best Features * 163
Bone Density * 169
I Am a Knife * 179
The Sacrifice of Darkness * 189
Noble Things * 215
Strange Gods * 235

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 257

CREDITS 259

 

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity:

“I Will Follow You” – As children, sisters Savvie and Carolina were abducted, raped, and sexually trafficked by a pedophile. As adults, they are inseparable.

“Water, All Its Weight” – Bianca’s parents abandoned her at an orphanage when she was three, due to the fact that water (and, consequently, mold and rot) follows her everywhere. Bianca’s husband Dean divorced her for the same reason.

“The Mark of Cain” – The narrator married Caleb. He and his identical twin, Jacob, like to switch places; she thinks of the men as “her husbands” and prefers Jacob to Caleb. Caleb is physically abusive to his wife. Caleb and Jacob’s father was physically abusive to them and his partners, one of whom killed him in self-defense.

“FLORIDA” – This story consists of several vignettes about the people living/working at Palmetto Landing, a gated community in Naples, Florida. Marcy and her husband relocate to Naples from Omaha for his job; she has an “ample physique,” at least in relation to her neighbors, and doesn’t feel like she fits in. The couple at 1217 Ridgewood Rd. Unit 11 married young and only have GEDs; they like to watch documentaries “about the lives of extraordinarily fat people so we can feel better about ourselves.” Jean-Richard and Elsie Moreau, who have lived at Palmetto Landing for seven years, are Hatian; another Hatian family just moved in, and their reactions to the new arrivals are markedly different. Caridad, the fitness instructor, is Latina; she lives with her boyfriend Manny. Caridad is sometimes propositioned/sexually harassed by her clients. A brothel is eventually established in the community spa; the woman living at 4411 Palmetto Pines Way visits a sex worker named Nadia.

“La Negra Blanca” – MC Sarah is a biracial sex worker (stripper) who passes as white. She attends Johns Hopkins during the day. One of her customers, William Livingston III, is a rich trust fund brat with “Jungle Fever” who stalks and eventually rapes her. Afterwards, he becomes enraged when he sees a family photo in Sarah’s home; he did not realize that her mother is black. His father, who also fetishized women of color, drilled into him that it was okay do everything but have intercourse with black women, so as not to ‘sully’ the family line. Previously William had sexually assaulted the family’s maid, a young black woman named Carmen, coercing her to perform oral sex on him. He also installed surveillance equipment in her quarters to spy on her. Sarah’s boyfriend Alvarez is an undocumented immigrant from Honduras.

“Baby Arm” – Mannequin meets an all-girl Fight Club.

“North Country” – One of Kate’s colleagues, a “dark-skinned hydrologist from India,” sexually harasses her. As a black woman, Kate is a “double novelty” in her department at the Michigan Institute of Technology. After her arrival from Nebraska, people keep asking whether she’s from Detroit. She strikes up an unexpected romance with Magnus, a white logger who lives in a doublewide trailer on his sister’s property. Kate was once pregnant, but the baby was stillborn.

“How” – Hanna and Anna Ikonen are twenty-seven-year-old twins who live together in the same house, along with Hanna’s husband Peter; Anna’s husband Logan; Anna and Logan’s son; and their father, Red. Red is confined to the basement; it’s strongly implied that he sexually abused the girls when they were younger. He’s unemployed and an alcoholic. Their mother Ilse left when they were eleven. Logan is Native American, from the reservation in Baraga. Hanna is secretly carrying on an affair with the twins’ best friend, Laura; she and Laura plan to run away, along with Anna and her family. Don Karpela, the owner of the supper club where Hanna works, sexually harasses the women employees.

“In the Event of My Father’s Death” – A woman bonds with her dead father’s mistress. She used to spend the weekends in Teresa’s trailer, while mom thought they were out fishing. Teresa fed her “appropriately white trash meal[s]” like grilled cheese and tater tots. After the funeral, the MC visits Teresa and the two end up having sex.

“Break All the Way Down” – When Natasha’s baby Ben Jr. dies in a tragic accident, she punishes herself by hooking up with a physically and sexually abusive man. Anna Lisa, the mother her boyfriend’s youngest child, gives her the baby girl to raise; she ends up going back to her husband Ben and they move far away from the home they shared with their son, in search of a fresh start.

“Bad Priest” – Father Michael Patrick Minty (“Mickey”) is having an affair with a (Jewish?) woman named Rebekah. Her last boyfriend, César, is newly sober.

“Open Marriage” – The narrator’s husband wants to have an open relationship and she humors him because she knows he’s got no game.

“Best Features” – A story about dating while fat. Milly’s boyfriend Jack is an ex-con.

“I Am a Knife” – A woman who miscarried fantasizes about cutting her twin sister’s fetus out of her body and transferring it to her own – similar to when they were in a car accident, and she stole a drunk driver’s heart to save her twin.

“Noble Things” – A dystopia about the second secession of the south and a New Civil War.

“Strange Gods” – The narrator is biracial: “I’m brown enough to satisfy your desire to be with someone exotic but I’m not so brown as to create insurmountable problems when we spend time with your family. You like to make jokes about how I’m the best of both worlds with my white father and my black mother and my good education—my bland Midwestern accent and caramel skin.” When she was a kid, she was lured to a deer blind by a beautiful blond boy named Steven Winthrop, who she thought was her friend. His and his pack of five followers gang-raped her; they were never punished. As a teen and adult, she found herself in a series of abusive relationships. Now she’s in a healthy relationship with a man who wants to marry her, but she resists settling down. She was once pregnant with his child, but suffered a miscarriage; the assault had left her with “scar tissue and uterine retroversion” and it was a miracle that she was able to conceive at all. The narrator’s best friend (a woman) is in love with her. Her husband’s brother sexually harasses/threatens her. (“When you’re my kind of mess, men can smell it on you. They hunt you down. Your brother is no exception.”)

Animal-friendly elements: Yes and no? Many of the stories are set in the North Country and are populated with miners, loggers, hunters, and fishermen. There is some really disturbing hunting imagery, most notably in “I Am a Knife” and “Strange Gods.” Hunting is equated with masculinity, though this is challenged somewhat in that the hunters’ female partners won’t eat/don’t trust venison:

I would eat none of it. I do not care for the taste of venison. It tastes too much like the flesh of an animal.
(“I Am a Knife”)

Venison is peculiar meat—muscular and gamey, tough to digest but popular in many circles. I do not care for venison. I don’t trust any meat slaughtered in the wild.
(“Strange Gods”)

The word venison comes from the Latin word venor, to hunt. I find that cruel, to name something for that end which comes to pass.
(“Strange Gods”)

Hunting as a display of dominance over women and the natural world is explored most obviously in “Strange Gods.” As a child, the narrator was lured to a deer blind in the woods and then gang-raped by her “boyfriend” and five of his friends. She describes the hospital exam:

They took pictures and plucked and scraped and splayed me open like the deer on the scale and gambrel.

After enduring further abuse in her teens and early adulthood, she finally enters into a healthy relationship with a kind man who loves and wants to marry her. However, like her rapist Steven Winthrop, he is popular and worshiped by throngs of men:

You too have always been popular. I have seen the evidence in your childhood bedroom, meticulously preserved by your mother. Even now, you have packs of men following you, willing to make you their strange god. That is the only thing about you that scares me.

This plus his love of hunting – “Hunting makes you feel like a man, you say.” – inspires distrust in her. Not unsurprisingly, since hunters’ prey can be human, too:

When you’re my kind of mess, men can smell it on you. They hunt you down. Your brother is no exception.

I wouldn’t exactly describe these stories as animal-friendly, but there’s plenty of room for deeper reading (which my brain feels incapable of at the moment, fwiw).

 

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One Response to “Book Review: Difficult Women, Roxane Gay (2017)”

  1. Kristin Says:

    I just wrote a review of this collection as well. I love reading others’ reactions. This was really great! I found North Country, La Negra Blanca, and Strange Gods especially moving. But the entire collection is wholly affecting. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on it!

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