Review: Difficult Women by Roxane Gay - A brutal, surreal take on feminism

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Difficult Women by Roxane Gay
Released: 10th January 2017
Published by: Hachette
Genre: Short stories
Source: Publisher
Pages: 260
My Rating: 4 of 5 stars
A collection of stories of rare force and beauty, of hardscrabble lives, passionate loves, and quirky and vexed human connection from award-winning author and powerhouse talent Roxane Gay.

The women in these stories live lives of privilege and of poverty, are in marriages both loving and haunted by past crimes or emotional blackmail. A pair of sisters, grown now, have been inseparable ever since they were abducted together as children, and must negotiate the elder sister's marriage. A woman married to a twin pretends not to realize when her husband and his brother impersonate each other. A stripper putting herself through college fends off the advances of an overzealous customer. A black engineer moves to Upper Michigan for a job and faces the malign curiosity of her colleagues and the difficulty of leaving her past behind.

From a girls' fight club to a wealthy subdivision in Florida where neighbors conform, compete, and spy on each other, Gay delivers a wry, beautiful, haunting vision of modern America.
Thank you to Hachette Australia for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review 

It takes great skill as an author to provide an immediate connection to characters and the situation they are facing in a short span of pages. Roxane Gay in her collection of stories has achieved just that. With piercing insight into the nuances of everyday life with all its pitfalls, and small triumphs where there is an upheaval of power imbalances, Gay's prose is equally commanding and authentic.

The stories within this book take on topics such as rape and assault in an everyday context with an unflinching brutality, and the loss of a child with words that are heavily laden with emotion. The characters are flawed, at times frustrating, but ultimately realistic. From the bonds between sisters, to exploring with sardonic wit the different stages of a relationship, either blossoming with sweet innocence in its early stages, or taking a malignant turn towards the end, each topic is probed without inhibition. The author has coaxed us into the lives of these women who are not so much difficult as they are complex, emotionally and physically.   

The stone thrower lives in a glass house with his glass family. He is a flesh-and-blood man going about the business of living with his glass wife and glass child, their glass furniture and glass lives. - Requiem for a Glass Heart 

Nestled among the shocking moments however are those that cause you to take a step back and think in a different way. One of my favourites in this book is the piece 'Requiem for a Glass Heart', which at just seven pages is perhaps one of the most hard-hitting. It is a tale of a woman who is not simply flesh and bone, whose intimate moments are left exposed, yet her inner thoughts remain guarded. It is personification of a totally different kind, subverted to display both the fragility of this woman and her sharper strength of mind. 

I wanted to tell her that we did not dare speak, that what was once the sun might once again become the sun. I wanted to tell her the sky lightened the day my perfect child was born and that with time, the world would be bright again. - The Sacrifice of Darkness

In another story which takes on a sci-fi/speculative angle, 'The Sacrifice of Darkness', the absence of the sun allows one love to blossom while deep seated resentment against the couple threatens to taint their union. In contrast to the many instances of men undermining women or attempting to make them feel somewhat inferior, the tenderness here offers a glimpse of hope. When there is enough darkness to be found in the everyday snide remarks or not so subtle digs at what a woman should be, Gay puts the spotlight on deserving better. 


As with most collections of stories, there were some which resonated with me more than others, but there were definitely enough defining moments in this book to make it worth a read. This is an unflinching portrayal of love when it is tender, and when it is twisted beyond recognition, being a woman who has suffered but is not broken, and the state of humanity in this mad world we live in. 


  1. What a lovely review, Eugenia. I always love how you collect your thoughts on books.

    I really feel like I should read something by Roxane Gay as I have heard so much about her and her work. This collection of stories might be the first piece of hers that I pick up because it sounds brutal and tender all in one breath, and those are sometimes the best books you can read.

    1. Thanks Chiara, that's so nice of you to say :) This one is definitely a great place to start, and definitely makes an impact for days after finishing it.


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