A collection of stories unified in theme—the struggles of women claiming independence for themselves—but wide-ranging in conception and form.
The women who populate this collection from the novelist and essayist Gay (Bad Feminist, 2014, etc.) are targets for aggressions both micro and macro, from the black scholar in “North Country” who receives constant unwelcome advances and questions of “Are you from Detroit?” to the sisters brutally held in captivity while teenagers in the bracing and subtle “I Will Follow You.” Gay savvily navigates the ways circumstances of gender and class alter the abuses: “Florida” is a cross-section of the women in a wealthy development, from the aimless, neglected white housewives to the Latina fitness trainer who’s misunderstood by them. The men in these stories sometimes come across as caricatures, archetypal violent misogynist-bigots like the wealthy white man playing dress-up with hip-hop culture and stalking the student/stripper in “La Negra Blanca.” But again, Gay isn’t given to uniform indictments: “Bad Priest” is a surprisingly tender story about a priest and the woman he has an affair with, and “Break All the Way Down” is a nuanced study of a woman’s urge for pain in a relationship after the loss of her son. Gay writes in a consistently simple style, but like a longtime bar-band leader, she can do a lot with it: repeating the title phrase in “I Am a Knife” evokes the narrator’s sustained experience with violence, and the title story satirizes snap judgments of women as “loose,” “frigid,” and “crazy” with plainspoken detail. When she applies that style to more allegorical or speculative tales, though, the stories stumble: “Requiem for a Glass Heart” is an overworked metaphorical study of fragility in relationships; “The Sacrifice of Darkness” is ersatz science fiction about the sun’s disappearance; “Noble Things” provocatively imagines a second Civil War but without enough space to effectively explore it.
Not every story works, but Gay is an admirable risk-taker in her exploration of women’s lives and new ways to tell their stories.