In Roxane Gay’s first collection of short stories, one thing is consistently true: a girl is better off with a sister by her side. In “I Am a Knife,” a woman performs a fantastical heart transplant in the wake of an accident to save her twin. In “How,” sisters Hanna and Anna “love each other wildly” and collude to escape their unhappy lives in Upper Michigan. In “I Will Follow You,” Carolina joins her sister in a kidnapper’s van rather than spare herself.
Few are spared some form of injury in Gay’s stories; mercy is not her concern. The women are subject to all manner of brutality: abusive fathers, clients, and boyfriends; racism, rape. Many are haunted by the loss of a child—so many, in fact, that at times the collection reads as if Gay has made multiple attempts to write a novel confronting such a death. In “North Country,” a structural engineer remembers her stillborn child, as well as its would-be father, who questions her sorrow: “He told me I had no reason to mourn a child that never lived.” In “I Am a Knife,” the narrator’s “beautiful and empty” house includes a room that is “perfectly decorated, frozen in time.” She tells us, “I sit on the floor and stare at the pink wallpaper and the wooden letters on the wall spelling a name and the linens my mother made for a perfect, tiny bed.” “Break All the Way Down” is told from the viewpoint of a mother who has lost her son. Gay withholds this history for several pages, so that when readers meet the narrator, they see her as a kind of surrogate: “Anna Lisa, the mother of my boyfriend’s youngest child, handed me her daughter,” the story begins. Anna Lisa announces, “I’m leaving my baby with you.” The collection’s preoccupation with motherhood is relentless—perhaps a reflection of the landscape in which these women live. In “Break All the Way Down,” the grieving mother is mistaken for the mother of her new charge. She wryly observes, “All babies look the same and all women with babies look the same.”
Surely not, Gay’s stories reply. Female bodies may endure a similar battery of experience, but they are distinct. Even when “difficult,” they are distinct: the titular story catalogues different types of “Difficult Women,” describing the ways each of them (“Loose Women,” “Frigid Women,” “Crazy Women,” and “Dead Girls”) have arrived at their distinction. There are limitations to this device—it is predictable from the outset—but this is a choice Gay seems to have made knowingly, and the ferocity of her prose overcomes those limitations.
Many of these stories previously appeared elsewhere between 2009 and 2014. The strongest offerings here are often told from the first person, set in Upper Michigan (or similar landscapes), and grapple with themes of sex, marriage, fertility, and sisterhood. There are forays to the Southeast (in “FLORIDA”) and into the realm of magic; not only in “I Am a Knife,” where physical impossibility tangles with genuine grief, but also in “Water, All Its Weight,” in which, as its opening sentence proclaims, “Water and its damages followed Bianca.” Ceilings, saturated, break apart over Bianca’s head. This haunting made literal is a more effective experiment than “Requiem for a Glass Heart,” in which readers are presented with the improbability of a “stone thrower” who “lives in a glass house with his glass family.” The imagery can be lovely here–the stone thrower “watches as orange juice sluices down [his wife’s] glass throat into her glass stomach”—but it can also be unnecessarily taxing: the wife “wore … diamonds in her glass hair” and occasionally “strips out of her clothes and disappears into the world unseen.” Like many men in these stories, the stone thrower is unfaithful. Infidelity, nearly always present, is rarely the point—it’s as much a fact, in this fiction, as the snow in Upper Michigan.
Most of the men fall into one of two categories here: long-suffering, eternally patient cuckolds or sadistic, selfish, sexually aggressive oafs. They dote or they scold; they love unconditionally or they sneer with indifference. There is little in between these spaces, because Gay's male characters are not the focus; they are simply foils for the women. Women—smart, lustful, grief-stricken, traumatized, vengeful, impatient—dominate these stories unapologetically.