I love Sarah McCarry's girls.
Gillian Flynn, the author of the bestseller Gone Girl (now a major motion picture), famously said in an interview that she "mourns the lack of female villains." The idea is that we are far too accustomed to seeing female characters portrayed in certain ways—ways that tend to be reductive, simplistic and one-dimensional and therefore, misogynist. Although I don't particularly find Flynn to have been successful in what she sets out to do in her own book, I do agree with the sentiment: It is of utmost importance that female characters are portrayed in a myriad of different ways. It is a matter of grave urgency that the books we read have a plethora of female characters that are allowed to simply be human (wow, you’d think that something that sound so freaking obvious would not even need to be said) with all of their idiosyncrasies, complexity and potential.
That's why I love Sarah McCarry's girls.
They are fierce and multifaceted. Hard to pin down and describe. And boy, do they make mistakes. Like real people.
In Dirty Wings, a companion novel (and prequel) to last year's excellent All Our Pretty Songs, her girls are friends Maia and Cass. Maia is an adopted child from Vietnam, cut out from any interaction with the world by overprotective, controlling parents. Her one connection to the world is her piano—Maia is a virtuoso and proudly so. But she is also lonely and bursting with energy to be free and do things.
Cass is a survivor of abuse, living on the streets. At first glance, Cass is the freest person Maia knows, someone who lives in the moment, carpe diem and all that jazz. Except nothing is as simple as that: The two meet, become fast friends and in their synchronously decide that they will run away and live wildly for a time. Sex, drugs, rock & roll and friendship converge in a heady, intoxicating story that is beautifully told, beautifully written.
If you have read All Our Pretty Songs, you know more or less how their story ends: Their daughters (oh, those girls. I also love them) are the protagonists of that story, the two mothers more or less still close friends, but one of them is living in a drugged-induced stupor. The seeds of how that happened can be found in Dirty Wings.
And speaking of seeds—and because this is a Science Fiction/Fantasy column—it behooves me to say that Dirty Wings is kind of a retelling of a Greek myth (much like All Our Pretty Songs). It's music, and it's pomegranate seeds eaten in haste, it's a figure that haunts the girls' dreams and who offers them—and a boy they know—more. It's not an overwhelming part of the story, especially because the supernatural being that makes them the offer they can barely refuse is not at fault. One of the most important things about writing good female characters is that they have agency: agency to be who they are and to fuck up from time to time and live with the consequences. And so it is here.
I love Sarah McCarry's girls. They are full of awesome. And of fire.
In Book Smugglerish: an intoxicated 8 out of 10.