This book is a collection of short stories by Roxane Gay. It wasn’t what I expected, because, well, I thought it was going to be a novel. I grabbed it from the poplar books section at the library since I recognized the title from one of my reading lists. I quickly skimmed the reviews on the back that described a debut novel, but I didn’t realize the reviews were for An Untamed State not this book. By the third story I thought to myself, no way can these three story lines pull together. Duh. They’re not supposed to.
I’m not really into short stories; they remind me too much of high school English classes. So this book was like a palate cleanser, something much different than what I normally read. I don’t think I read short stories correctly. They seem to have an awful lot of meaning and emotion packed into very few pages, or at least Gay’s did. I felt like I should have taken time to contemplate what I had read before moving onto the next story, but that’s not my reading style. Instead I zoomed through these stories until, due to common themes of violence, sex, and tragedy, they began to run into one another.
While I wish the stories were more varied, they were very immersive. I think I would really enjoy reading a novel by Gay. She writes in a very pretty manner, to the point where I often felt her beautiful writing and harsh topics clashed. It wasn’t bad, just kind of jarring. Although, some of the plots were disturbing. The Mark of Cain is about a women whose husband is a twin and the twins swap places – including in bed – and she is aware of this. Baby Arm was just weird, involving a female fight club and a night only boyfriend who creepily brings parts of a dummy baby as gifts. And a number of the stories involve rape. For me, La Negra Blanca was the worst because of how it ends (spoiler alert) with the stripper’s customer raping her and then the stripper chalking it up to an occupational hazard. So you’re left gut wrenched both because of the rape and because of the stripper’s acceptance of it.
My favorite story was North Country, where an engineer moves to the Upper Peninsula and deals with cold winters, racial biases, and sexual harassment while reluctantly falling in love with a local. I cried while reading Break All the Way Down. That story follows the heartbreaking aftermath of a couple who lost a small child in an accident. I also thought FLORIDA, a bunch of vignettes describing the everyday life of some loosely connected people, was interesting and funny. I enjoyed that How focused on unconventional family dynamics. I would have liked a longer story so we could see what happened after the characters ride out into the sunset. Towards the end of the book The Sacrifice of Darkness and Noble Things were solid Sci-Fi stories that provided a much needed change of pace. They made me interested in seeing what kind of novel-length Sci-Fi story Gay could create.
I would say if you like short stories and don’t mind R rated themes you will probably love this book because Gay is a great storyteller. If short stories are not your thing, this collection is not going to make you change your mind, but it’s a good book to mix up your normal reading routine.