4 out of 5 stars. I picked this up on a whim, scrolling through short story collections available on Libby that I might be interested in reading. Earlier in 2018, I listened to Gay’s Not That Bad essay collection on audiobook (that review went up last Friday as part of my catch-up!), and I liked how she put that together. I’ve heard a lot about her, mostly because of her run on the comic World of Wakanda, and have been meaning to read more of her work, so this was my first jump into her fiction.
Difficult Women is a short story collection that focuses on themes of motherhood, womanhood, relationships, and sense of self and identity. It is oftentimes brutal and harsh in its realities and sometimes, as a result, hard to read. As a victim of sexual assault, Gay’s stories in this collection are definitely personal, and it shows in the upfront and honest way the subject matter is presented. There is, as a warning, a lot of sexual assault in this collection. It isn’t out of place, or unnecessary, given where Gay is writing from, but it is something to be mindful of going in.
Gay’s writing is almost lyrical, combining repetitive prose, gorgeous descriptions, and intricate details to weave emotional stories that will leave you feeling sad or hopeful or exhausted right alongside her characters. I appreciate her style—despite its lyrical quality, it never felt unnecessary or needlessly wordy. Everything in her writing works well together to create a compelling work.
Of the individual stories, I liked these the most: “I Am a Knife,” a chilling, almost supernatural tale of deep, personal loss; “The Sacrifice of Darkness,” a story of a man so brought down by his job in the mines that he swallows up the sun and brings eternal darkness; and “I Will Follow You,” a tale of two sisters who have been through terrible trauma together and will always remain together as a result. There weren’t any stories I flat-out disliked, though some were more engaging than others.
This collection is best read in short bursts, with a bit of a palate cleanser between; most of the stories are dark in one way or another, and I found that, while they were good and I appreciated them, I couldn’t really manage more than a few at a time. Don’t let this turn you off from reading it, but keep that in mind going in.