Review of Private Rites by Julia Armfield

Private Rites cover
Private Rites
Julia Armfield
Flatiron Books, 2024, 304 pages

Reviewed by Catherine Horowitz

When will you know that the apocalypse has arrived? When will the realization come that we’ve progressed too far in destroying the world to reverse it? Julia Armfield’s speculative novel Private Rites is a vivid depiction of an apocalypse of the mundane, where people make gradual adjustments to the world’s worsening conditions, ultimately doing what it takes to continue their lives around it.

In the world of Private Rites, there is heavy rainfall every day, with only a few minutes of respite. Water levels continue to rise. People live on the upper floors of collapsing high-rise buildings and take public boats to work, while the wealthy flee to less affected areas and use advanced technology to delay being impacted. This didn’t happen all at once; it was a gradual decline, with fewer and fewer sunny days until people were stuck trying to remember the last sunburn they had.

Amid this, Isla, Irene, and Agnes must navigate the death of their father and their own strained relationships. Isla is a high-strung eldest daughter, Irene is short-tempered, and Agnes, ten years younger than her sisters, is distant and impossible to reach. Their father was an acclaimed architect who designed many of the buildings adapted to the rising water levels but was absent and sometimes cruel to his daughters. The sisters are forced together when he dies and find themselves entrenched in conflicts both familial and widespread.

At its core, Private Rites is a beautiful and lifelike depiction of sibling and family relationships and their complexities. It puts words to facets of sibling relationships I hadn’t thought to name, like the “strange back-dated nature of the things [siblings] choose to know” about you and how uniquely frustrating this is.

There is another layer of complexity as well: how to navigate one’s personal life during the literal apocalypse. Is it worth it to try to work through relationships or to grow as a person when the ocean could rise about your apartment any day? Although our world may not feel quite as dire as this one, it can still be challenging to balance both one’s personal life and the fact that the planet is burning and people are suffering in a much more pressing way.

Armfield is also a thoughtful and meticulous world-builder, constructing a landscape that extends far beyond the confines of the book. The world-building goes down to the smallest details, like the fact that people drink chicory coffee because coffee beans can’t grow anymore, cremations are mandated by law since it’s impossible to bury bodies, and the cleaner, more controlled suburbs are called the “millponds.” The landscape of Private Rites is as important as its plot, and Armfield makes it feel both real and terrifyingly feasible.

While Private Rites starts off slow-paced, focusing primarily on its three protagonists and their histories, relationships, and daily lives, Armfield scatters hints throughout the landscape that something more catastrophic is coming. This sense of anticipation grows gradually throughout the book, which turns from a slice-of-life novel set at the end of the world into a thriller. For the last third of the book, I couldn’t put it down.

There is also the King Lear element of the book, which is labeled as a “speculative reimagining.” The parallels are clear: a powerful father dies and causes conflict in dividing his properties among his three daughters. The youngest daughter is the clear outlier. Tense familial relationships lead to destruction. I wouldn’t exactly call Private Rites a reimagining, though; I would say it exists in conversation with King Lear. The plots diverge in ways that sometimes feel like deliberate inversions but more often feel unrelated. It might be a fun exercise for someone familiar with both texts to further interpret them in comparison, drawing out thematic parallels and significant differences. Ultimately, though, while knowledge of King Lear might be rewarding in some ways, it isn’t necessary to understand Private Rites and its larger themes.

Private Rites is a thoughtful, moving book that intertwines a personal story with a larger climate catastrophe. Although thrilling and fast-paced at the end, its larger world and multifaceted characters are what make it powerful. It’s also a masterful representation of rain and wateriness; I’ve never felt more relieved to emerge into hot, sunny weather.

Catherine Horowitz is a writer and teacher living in Washington, D.C. She earned a B.A. in English and Jewish Studies from Oberlin College. You can find her other work in Bright Wall/Dark Room, New Voices, and the Jewish Women’s Archive.

Review of Cecilia by K-Ming Chang

Cecilia cover
K-Ming Chang
Coffee House Press, 2024, 144 pages

Reviewed by Darla Tejada

Reading Cecilia was like suffering an ingrown toenail that causes blood and pus to ooze from tender flesh, concocting a putrid stench that haunts the nostrils as much as the pain of a pierced toe haunts the foot. I’ll stop with the figurative dramatics, though, if you enjoy that kind of writing, this novella by K-Ming Chang might just be for you.

Told through (or unfolding in the mind of) the main character and narrator, Seven, Cecilia is about that universal lesbian experience: the obsession with our first ‘situationship.’

Let me sing my praises before I turn you off the work. Chang triumphs in how she depicts and weaves together those forces in our lives that live just beyond the tangible. The sublimation—through Chang’s surreal prose—of cultural expectations, familial tensions and self-repressions that Seven experiences lend the story an almost instinctual telling. It is as if Seven’s “objective” reality, filtered through their perspective, was distilled into its purest (and therefore most visceral and animal) form. By dissolving the divide between internal and external, Cecilia’s reality becomes a new plane of existence—a third place resulting from the cross-contamination between the physical world and the psyche.

To read Cecilia is to step into Seven’s skin. This intimacy with Seven’s interiority makes the narrative more immediate. I felt the familial claustrophobia of an immigrant family whose embrace is as comforting as it is suffocating. I recognised those same bonds between Seven and their Ma and Ama—that cutting comfort between the women in the family. I yearned, just as Seven did, for “a boyhood for my bones” (65). Chang rends the stereotype of the submissive and docile Asian woman, with Seven even perceiving themself as a predator and consistently transgressing the bounds of appropriate feminine behaviours and desires.

Ultimately, though, I thought that Cecilia was better as a short story. The narrative was mired in a futile orbit, prolonged for the sake of semantical experimentation. I am, however, doubtful of this experiment’s success. Chang’s evocations of obsession were more iterative than generative. Each analepsis neither provided us with greater insight on just what made Seven so enamoured by and beholden to Cecilia—other than the fact that Cecilia was a manic pixie ‘Quirky Girl’—nor gave new insight or perspective on dyke yearning/co-dependency.

The only discernible progression in the narrative was that Seven licked Cecilia’s sweat in the first part of the book and then eventually consumed a speck of Cecilia’s shit towards the end of it. Perhaps a commentary about the repulsiveness of an all-consuming, unrequited sapphic love? Even Seven’s realisation that they might be the prey falls flat. The story is in Seven’s focalisation, so the reader recognises that there is a naiveté in them that is particularly un-predator-like, and very little resistance or interrogation opposed what Cecilia says and does.

But despite this less-than-positive introduction to Chang’s written work, I’m still keen to read more of her.

Darla Tejada is a Filipino reader and writer based in Naarm. Her work has been published by Archer Magazine online and Kill Your Darlings (KYD), among others. You can find her reading queer books on the 58 tram, going for aimless walks, and eating camembert stuffed croissants.

Review of How It Works Out by Myriam Lacroix

How It Works Out cover
How It Works Out
Myriam Lacroix
The Overlook Press, 2024, 240 pages

Reviewed by Pelaya Arapakis

Myriam Lacroix’s exhilarating debut novel How It Works Out follows a sapphic love story spanning a series of alternate realities. At the centre of the novel are Myriam and Allison—two lovers who meet at a show in a run-down punk house in Vancouver. How It Works Out is guided by the question of “what if?” catapulting protagonists into a range of radically different hypothetical scenarios that present various outcomes to their relationship. With each chapter, a new setting is imagined. What if Myriam and Allison discovered an abandoned baby in an alley, named him Jonah, and raised him as their own? What if the only way to treat Myriam’s depression was cannibalism? What if Myriam and Allison were a dog and praying mantis who fell in love? What if the pair became a micro-celebrity couple after releasing a self-help book on lesbian relationships?

A work of autofiction, How It Works Out blurs the boundaries between reality and fantasy. We bear witness to love blossoming and waning, moving through the rose-tinted, dream-like highs of early romance to the various states of relationship decay. As the novel progresses, scenarios become marked by a pervasive darkness that coincides with the gradual unravelling of the relationship. Throughout it all, Lacroix anchors us with her precise and lyrical prose that testifies to her literary origins as a poet.

In and amongst the satirically absurd backdrops is a striking vulnerability as the characters excavate their interior and exterior worlds in the search for clarity, emotional truth, and authenticity. In the chapter “How It Works Out,” Myriam confides in an ex-partner, “I love Allison…I want us to be right for each other” (70). Her heart-rending admission recalls an often difficult truth: love and compatibility are not always in harmony. These moments of fragility are again echoed in “Anthropocene,” where Myriam—addressing Allison—delivers the achingly omniscient line, “How many times do I have to let you go?” (190).

How It Works Out is an intoxicating and visceral journey filled with queer possibility, offering readers a surreal, witty, and poignant tapestry of the potentialities and pitfalls of love. It is a love story that is as unique as it is unforgettable.

Pelaya Arapakis (she/her) is a Sinister Wisdom intern based in Naarm/Melbourne. She is also a musician, cultural worker and freelance writer.

Review of Desert Haven by Penelope Starr

Desert Haven cover
Desert Haven
Penelope Starr
Rattling Good Yarns Press, 2024, 234 pages

Reviewed by Sandra Butler

Penelope Starr is a gatherer of stories. Founder of Odyssey Storytelling, a community storytelling event now celebrating its twentieth year, she understands how our stories illuminate the commonalities of our lesbian lives while leaving lots of room for the unique and distinct way each woman makes and lives her choices. I was grateful to enter the world of women’s land with her as my guide. Starr is a lesbian equipped not with theories, hypotheses, or assumptions but with curiosity and admiration for the choices and experiences of the landdykes who come to life on these pages.

There has been much written analyzing, theorizing, and assessing the history of lesbians returning to live on the land, but very little from inside the lived experience of the lesbians themselves. The fifteen stories in Desert Haven introduce us to a wonderfully varied mix of women, each deserving of their own novel, and together, they blend into an ever-shifting patchwork of personalities, relationships, and communal life.

Originally conceived as a documentary film for which Starr did dozens of in-depth interviews, the means to create the documentary fell through; several of the women died or moved away, and others decided they didn’t want to be public. Starr took the raw material she had gathered and wrote a novel, Desert Haven, inspired by these lesbians and told their stories to a readership eager for them. She introduces us to this constantly shifting cast of characters in a series of first-person stories, helping us understand their motivations and need to be part of an all-lesbian environment that would support and nurture their lives.

The work at Desert Haven was unrelenting, and the resources were few. The decision to choose a financially marginal, physically demanding, and fiercely idealistic life took courage. Why did they come? What had they left behind, and what did they find in this new community with other women who had moved off the conventional grid to a life entirely away from the dominant culture in a world of their own making?

Some were fleeing abusive family lives, searching for direction and meaning; others were passionately separatist dykes, women who wanted a world without men and were hungry to come to rest in an all-women’s space. Some women moved to Desert Haven, put down roots and pulled them up again after a few seasons to move on to their next adventure. Each was dedicated to living life on her own terms and prepared to pay whatever price was required to do that. We watch them move in and out of relationships, fall fiercely in love, become friends, break up, or form lasting family bonds. We listen to their firmly held beliefs about equalizing resources and responsibilities and differing opinions about trans women on the land. Community meetings were alternately cooperative and contentious, and rituals were revered by some and dismissed by others. The honoring of Mother Earth was an organizing principle, even as the land was in an ongoing state of order and disorder.

The scaffolding for these stories is provided by JoJo, the welcoming and stabilizing woman who bought this piece of land and held it for any lesbian who needed to be there. We follow the ever-changing cast of characters from Dee, who arrived in 1977, to JoJo’s death in 2014 when her daughter-by-choice inherits this historic bit of land and is left to imagine what the future might look like. Luckily for us, Starr is working on that!

I remember those days in my own lesbian-feminist life. The urgency, the passion, and the commitment to making a life that would honor, value, and support every woman–whether we agreed with her or not! It was hard work then and continues to be hard work now. Yet it’s what is required of us as we dykes dream and imagine and create. I am grateful for Starr’s stories and these women. I saw a bit of myself in nearly all of them and marveled at their doggedness, their trust in one another, and the ways they created the dream of a different future in their lives.

Sandra Butler writes about whatever is still unspoken in women’s lives. The Kitchen is Closed: And Other Benefits Of Being Old is a collection of the musings of an old lesbian-feminist. Leaving Home at 83 will be published in October 2024.

Review of Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, edited by Carmen Maria Machado

Carmilla cover
Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, edited by Carmen Maria Machado
Lanternfish Press, 2019, 160 pages
Originally published in The Dark Blue, 1871-1872, 139 pages

Reviewed by Chloe Weber

You may be familiar with the “lesbian vampire” narrative, one repeated in numerous books, films, and other forms of media. But from where did this narrative originate? Many argue that Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu set the stage for many of the lesbian and sapphic vampires we see today.

Carmilla, originally published as a serial in the London-based literary magazine The Dark Blue and later reprinted by Le Fanu in In A Glass Darkly (1872), predates its more famous counterpart, Dracula, by over twenty years. This novel is set in nineteenth-century Styria, a federal state of Austria, and follows teen protagonist Laura as she becomes acquainted with a strange new houseguest, Carmilla.

However, before the story begins, in the prologue of Carmilla, we learn that Laura has already passed away. This story is recounted as a case study by a man named Doctor Hesselius, who claims he corresponded with Laura, where she spoke in detail about her experiences with the vampire Carmilla. This correspondence was long presumed fictional until 1973, when Dr. Jane Leight uncovered within LeFanu’s study a stack of correspondence between a doctor and a woman called only “V.”

If we assume Laura and Doctor Hesselius are real, what of the vampire Carmilla, and what of the obviously queer relationship between the two women? Most scholars would say the lesbianism of Laura and Carmilla is no fiction. In fact, the letters written by V. are said to contain even more detail of her desire for Carmilla than what made it into Le Fanu’s manuscript. The truth is much more devastating: Carmilla is a story about “a young woman’s sexual awakening; [and] the senseless slaughter of her supposed defiler” (Carmen Maria Machado, vi).

Going into the novel with these considerations, I found Carmilla read less like a gothic horror and more like a story about queerness itself, with lesbianism as the focus. Carmilla lays her claim on Laura only moments after their first meeting, seeing it as fate bringing them together once more, as they both recall a shared “dream” of meeting as children. What follows is a tale in which Laura attempts to resist Carmilla’s various charms and claims on her life, brushing off her declarations of love as simple hysteria. Laura prefers to view Carmilla’s love as part of her weak countenance rather than accept her lesbianism. Carmilla experiences hours of apathy followed by ones of intense love, which she inflicts upon Laura, saying, “You are mine, you shall be mine, you and I are one forever.” Laura describes the behavior, “like the ardor of a lover; it embarrassed me…” (37).

Laura’s eventual sexual awakening towards Carmilla comes when she is pierced in the breast by a beastly figure, later revealed to be Carmilla in a vampiric form. Following this strange occurrence, Laura believes her health is declining rapidly, and she describes attraction towards Carmilla as one of her primary symptoms. Laura even describes an orgasm experienced in a dreamlike state as she imagines sensations of a woman kissing up to her throat (69).

The only solution to Laura’s afflicted state is to eliminate the source of her woes, as she discovers evidence that Carmilla is actually an immortal vampire named Millarca. Laura still longs to find Carmilla safe, despite the evidence and even as the object of her desire is staked and beheaded. This confirms that Laura’s lesbianism is not something that will go away, and it cannot be cured as if it were some malicious malady.

It is not a far-fetched assumption that the real Carmilla, a woman named Marcia, was not a vampire as described by V. but a simple lesbian. Thanks to Le Fanu, Marcia is immortalized as a vampiric monster rather than just a human who stole a wealthy girl’s affection.

What modern-day readers should take away from Carmilla is that their lesbianism is not a supernatural curse and that they may live freely and openly rather than live in fear of their identity. Laura’s, or V.’s, suppression of desire caused an unnatural amount of pain: it is possible that if these two women had embraced their love instead, their story might have ended differently.

Chloe Weber is a Sinister Wisdom intern for the May 2024 season, located remotely in Montclair, New Jersey. She attends Macalester College as a student of English and Anthropology, always on the hunt to expand her literary knowledge.

Review of Cities of Women by Kathleen B. Jones

Cities of Women cover
Cities of Women
Kathleen B. Jones
Keylight Books, 2024, 288 pages

Reviewed by Dot Persica

Cities of Women by Kathleen B. Jones begins with a beautiful premise: it is a book dedicated to all the women artists who have been made invisible. Her love for and commitment to historic lesbians is clear and indubitable from the very beginning, and it shapes her narration.

Jones has much in common with Verity Frazier, the protagonist—a disillusioned academic whose curiosity is rekindled by Christine de Pizan, or rather by the suspicion that the hand responsible for the artwork in her manuscripts may have belonged to a woman artist called Anastasia. This idea propels a journey in search of the truth (as a native Italian speaker, the choice to name her Verity, veritas, is a little bit on the nose, but I imagine for readers who aren’t accustomed to Latinisms this is more subtle), as Verity is dying to unearth tangible proof of her theory.

What counts as fact is open to question—Verity speaks these words to her ex, Regina, with whom she has a strange (alas normal in lesbian terms) friendship. The incessant search for the real truth behind the accepted, dogmatic “truth” defines this book and the queer experience: what are we if not love’s archaeologists, tirelessly digging for proof that we aren’t the first or the only people to have loved the way we love, in the face of the world telling us that we are solitary exceptions?

Some descriptions of Verity’s amazement when interacting with valuable artifacts during her research reminded me of my experience at the Lesbian Herstory Archives—to touch the texture of the past, as Kathleen B. Jones says, provides a closeness to the subject that just can’t compare to simply reading about it, and the author succeeds in describing it as an almost religious experience.

Readers are accompanied back and forth between Verity’s present day and Christine’s late medieval Europe, both studded with political considerations about two eras that at first glance couldn’t seem more different but have much in common, touching on modern gentrification and its predecessors, the ever-present corruption of Church and State, and misogyny. The narration spans multiple characters’ points of view: an ambitious choice which is definitely called for in a book like this, though it’s not always executed smoothly.

To me, the author seemed more comfortable and truthful when writing in heightened language, leaving me with a feeling that she was holding back, almost restraining herself when writing in a more modern style. This made me yearn to be catapulted back into the thirteenth century.

Altogether, I thought the concept was wonderful, though very difficult to concretize.

I did not think it was unrealistic for Verity to encounter someone with the same name as the woman she was researching: Anastasia. As a lesbian whose existence is constantly altered by unbelievable coincidences, and who has observed the same in her lesbian friends’ lives, I found this a perfectly accurate, reasonable, and frankly quite brilliant form of representation.

As lesbians, every event in our existence is somehow brought on by strange forces we can’t define, and maybe it’s none other than our Lesbian Ancestors having their way with our little lives. I think this book captures that.

Dot Persica (any pronouns) is a lesbian performer born in Naples, Italy. They are a classically trained soprano with a vague dance background; they have experience directing opera, helping out here and there on film sets, and doing stand-up. They are a co-founder of the Italian lesbian+ collective STRASAFFICA*, with which they have organized community events, raised funds, and created beautiful bonds. They also write poetry, like all lesbians.

Review of Rainbow Black by Maggie Thrash

Rainbow Black cover
Rainbow Black
Maggie Thrash
Harper Perennial, 2024, 416 pages

Reviewed by Catherine Horowitz

Rainbow Black by Maggie Thrash is a riveting thriller that blends dark comedy, romance, and murder mystery. It is mostly set in the summer of 1990, when Lacey, a middle schooler living on a farm in New Hampshire, and her parents, who run a daycare from their home, become caught up in the Satanic Panic sweeping the nation. Her parents are arrested and accused of a number of fictionalized crimes, mostly Satanic child abuse rituals. As her family’s situation worsens inside and outside the courtroom, Lacey’s life spirals further out of control, pushing her to make decisions that will follow her far into the future.

Rainbow Black is wildly gripping and always entertaining despite its dark themes. As a reader, you know it’s not going to end well, largely because the book is told from a retrospective point of view, with narration from an older version of Lacey, who alludes to future events. Despite this looming sense of doom, Thrash always keeps you on the edge of your seat.

The book is often over-the-top and sometimes even absurd, mirroring the pulpy, mind-numbing entertainment that it often discusses. During the summer of their parents’ trial, Lacey and her older sister watch Days of Our Lives religiously, becoming increasingly drawn in as the plot becomes more and more ridiculous and outlandish. This provides a mind-numbing escape from the real world for them and mirrors their own lives, which are quickly becoming equally unbelievable.

This absurdity is why the book works, excessive as it may be. As Lacey watches fever dream-esque Kool-Aid commercials and thinks, “No wonder [her parents’ students] were having psychotic delusions,” newspapers write sensationalist headlines about her family that are equally outlandish. Her lawyer argues that the hedonism and consumerism of the late twentieth century, especially in the media, both make people’s lives worse and cause them to expect outrageous entertainment in real life, too. The book serves as another statement on entertainment and media and how they can blur the lines between authenticity and fiction.

Woven within the twists and turns of the book are the complex discussions of queer identity, sex, love, family, and other more serious topics. Perhaps, most importantly, it is a moving criticism of the American justice system, painting a picture that feels all too real of how it can hurt people by dragging them into false narratives.

At its core, Rainbow Black succeeds because its protagonist, Lacey, is a compelling character whose thoughts and feelings consistently feel vivid, earnest, and true. Despite knowing how things will end, you can’t help but hope for her to end up all right. The love story in the book’s second half also provides a surprising respite from its dark themes, ultimately becoming a central force that keeps its protagonists going. This all makes for an enthralling story that is, at its core, about love, relationships, and a quest to stay oneself in the midst of uncontrollable chaos.

Catherine Horowitz is a writer and teacher living in Washington, D.C. She earned a B.A. in English and Jewish Studies from Oberlin College. You can find her other work in Bright Wall/Dark Room, New Voices, and the Jewish Women’s Archive.

Review of Blessed Water: A Sister Holiday Mystery by Margot Douaihy

Blessed Water: A Sister Holiday Mystery cover
Blessed Water: A Sister Holiday Mystery
Margot Douaihy
Zando, Gillian Flynn Books, 2024, 288 pages

Reviewed by Roberta Arnold

Punk rocker nun sleuth Sister Holiday is on the case again in this brilliant sequel to Scorched Earth. Blessed Water is rife with fluid language and water imagery; one dead priest is fished out of the Mississippi, and the ominous photo of another missing priest slides under the door in a polaroid. Sister Holiday and her lead-footed ex-fire inspector partner, Magnolia Riveaux, snake their way over turbulent floodwaters to find Father Nathan, the quiet Black priest who, like Sister Holiday, can’t get over the loss of his mother. Douaihy is an accomplished poet with four published books of poetry under her belt, and she unfurls sentences with life lessons through language that ranges from the sensate to the sublime.

Sister Holiday’s partner, Riveaux, wears mom jeans and a tight ponytail and has recently rid herself of a white guy–and a pill addiction acquired from a broken back. Sister Holiday joined the Parish school and convent to find redemption from the sins of her past–a past that includes the unforgivable in her mind. She finds poetic justice poking at barbaric hierarchical structures to see what shakes out. Holiday and Riveaux both have an unusual style reserved for those who live on the margins and know how to look in the places between things–a gap or crevice more easily seen by those who live outside the norm: a haunted lesbian nun covered in tattoo ink and a beautifully brazen Black ex-cop who embraces the little things in life that inspire awe.

While not fitting into any prescribed family model, Sister Holiday paradoxically daydreams about growing old with her one true love, Nina. In the first Sister Holiday book, love-making between the two exploded off the pages with unbound lesbian desire. Holiday’s past resurfaces in Blessed Water through the character of her brother, who turns up unexpectedly–the Moose to her Goose, two nicknames defined by the symbiosis of their childhood play. One-liners spark in flinty propulsion and invariably move the story along or toss it up in the air, delivering devil-may-care chutzpah to the saints and sinners of New Orleans.

In the acknowledgements, Douaihy recognizes the harm done by the Catholic church and colonialist rule. Douaihy’s writing takes its redemption with the strident knowledge that two opposing things simultaneously can be true, similar to a marginalized lesbian finding redemption in Catholicism. The stories and writing offer up pictures of life as vehicles of insight, wisdom, and humor not to be missed.

“My insides churned. Riveaux and I walked back to the truck to the soundtrack of Riveaux’s cane and my muttering. Hail Mary, full of Grace. Let the afterlife be a lesbian separatist commune. Amen.

Roberta Arnold is a Sinister Wisdom board member and volunteer who reads and writes and walks in awe of nature every day. She lives in the mountains of SW Virginia near to her sister, her dog, and her cat, none of whom really belong to her.

Review of Women! In! Peril! by Jessie Ren Marshall

Women! In! Peril! cover
Women! In! Peril!
Jessie Ren Marshall
Bloomsbury, 2024, 288 pages

Reviewed by Courtney Heidorn

There is something for every reader in Jessie Ren Marshall’s short stories: robot girlfriends, sapphic ballerinas, lesbian co-parents, and women flying through space. Marshall writes in several genres—romance, sci-fi, young adult, and more. Yet, the collection remains unified with exclusively female narrators and the truth that these women are, in fact, in peril. The most memorable perils to note are big tech controlling women’s bodies, divorced women grieving awful men, and pseudo-spiritual sapphic stories.

Stories like “Annie 2” and the titular story “Women! In! Peril!” display Marshall’s commentary on sexism, especially in the context of late-stage capitalism and rapid technological advancements. Annie is a female life-like robot who does housework and, when desired, is a sex toy. She says that robots like her are “not capable of wanting anything for [themselves], other than to be useful and used” (25). Annie is a robot, so this is in her design. However, Annie represents the pigeon-holed patriarchal roles assigned to women. With this in mind, Marshall cleverly gives Annie a bit of humanity—she cares for the other appliances and household items, like cleaning the toaster or shining shoes. Although her human owners control her, Marshall gives Annie agency within her captivity to care for other items destined to be thrown out and forgotten.

Marshall writes several stories that involve divorce, and almost all of them involve the female protagonists finding their way after their marriages end, as well as grappling with the reality that their previous male partners were, in fact, terrible. In “Dogs,” the narrator’s husband leaves her on a whim for one of his clients at his veterinary practice. The story consists of her in the early stages of grief—she can barely shower or leave the house. Marshall employs a dog motif throughout the story, and by the end, the reader realizes that she is likening the ex-husband to a dog. The speaker is going for a drive, and she sees a dog in the road and contemplates rescuing it, but it runs away. She says, “I could turn the car around, take the one I love and try to save him, but I know it wouldn’t work. The dog has made his choice” (99). Her ex-husband has made his choice, and she can do nothing. Marshall’s wit allows her to create metaphors that work well emotionally, but they also successfully take digs at awful men.

There are a few sapphic stories in this collection, and I can only describe them as spiritual—their themes go beyond what is tangible and knowable. In “My Immaculate Girlfriend,” the protagonist’s girlfriend gets pregnant, to both of their surprise, and the girlfriend believes it was God who impregnated her. The story ends with the protagonist’s acceptance of faith and doubles down on her love for her girlfriend: “I would never leave her. I would never let her go” (51). In “Late Girl,” we follow a dance student’s traumatic accident that leaves her with memory loss. However, her body remembers her dance choreography even when her mind is blank. It is revealed that her body remembers more than just dance moves; it also remembers her intimate relations with an unexpected character. When her mind catches up with her body, she does “the most honest thing a body can do. It gave her this mouth, this tummy, these thighs and cheeks and hands” (147). Marshall’s sapphic stories are dreamy, warm, and very well executed.

Each reader will see themselves in Marshall’s impressively nuanced, flawed characters. The diversity in storytelling and genre in Women! In! Peril! is genuinely impressive and very fun to witness. Picking up Women! In! Peril! is a great way to celebrate AAPI voices this month and always.

Courtney Heidorn (she/they) holds a BA in English and Creative Writing from Azusa Pacific University. You can see more of their work in their chapbook, Palimpsest, from Bottlecap Press and at CURIOUS Magazine and Pearl Press.

Review of Grace Period by Elisabeth Nonas

Grace Period cover
Grace Period
Elisabeth Nonas
Rattling Good Yarns Press, 2024, 286 pages

Reviewed by Judith Katz

Elisabeth Nonas’ lovely fourth novel, Grace Period, starts with a funeral—and a standup comedy act. The funeral is for Grace Black, an art history professor at a small college in Ithaca, New York. The comedienne filling us in on the details of the funeral is Grace’s partner of 25 years, 70-year-old Hannah Greene, who is on the edge of retiring from her position in the English department of that same college.

Grace was ten years Hannah’s junior. She died of a stroke on the way to Hannah’s retirement party, just weeks away from the start of her sabbatical. Going back and forth in time, Hannah traces the stories of her past and present life with Grace and the dashed hopes of what was to be their future. She spends the bulk of her grieving (and this novel) trying to figure out who she is and what she is meant to do now that Grace is gone.

Nonas has created an affable first-person narrator with Hannah. She’s a funny and self-deprecating Jewish butch whose sartorial choices run to polos, tees, shorts, and sweats.

Grace was the cook in the family and the gardener, too. When left to her own devices, Hannah feels lost in the beautifully appointed kitchen the couple designed together to meet Grace’s exacting specifications. Days into her grieving, Hannah is barely able to make herself a cup of espresso as she finds herself at odds with a newfangled coffee maker clearly purchased by Grace before her accident. Hannah can’t even figure out what to eat for dinner or, once having done that, how to prepare it.

Friends reach out, offer dinner and coffee dates, and even suggest she get a dog. But Hannah seems committed to her isolation. To establish some order in her life, Hannah begins to consult the imaginary Grace for advice about what to do next. She makes lists and slowly begins to follow them, heating up soup and eventually getting herself to eat it.

Hannah’s isolation doesn’t last for long. A few days after the funeral, a dusty Subaru, like the one Grace used to drive, roars up to the house. Out pop Cristina, the new instructor to the Art History department that Grace had hired, and Nicole, her lover. Unaware of Grace’s death, the two are caught off guard, but Hannah graciously offers them a temporary place to stay with the caveat that she won’t be very good company. The women reluctantly take Hannah up on her offer, and she seems to reluctantly welcome them in.

All the while, Hannah struggles to find solid memories of her life with Grace. Yes, there are souvenirs of their various trips together, like a particular bottle of wine that lets her reminisce. But none of these things seem sufficient. It isn’t until she finds herself cleaning out Grace’s office at the college where they both worked that Hannah finally stumbles onto evidence of something concrete that raises a memory. It’s precisely the kind of recollection a surviving partner would much rather forget, and yet, this hint of an event (which may or may not have happened) is exactly the thing that eventually brings Hannah toward a real sense of grieving and the core of her love for Grace.

Judith Katz is the author of two novels, The Escape Artist and Running Fiercely Toward a High Thin Sound, which won the 1992 Lambda Literary Award for Best Lesbian Fiction. She is currently working on sequels to both novels, and is still meditating on her novel in a drawer, The Atomic Age.


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