Difficult Women

Roxane Gay

Difficult Women is a collection of short stories by Roxane Gay that I recently read for the 2020 Reading Rush and I loved it.

Going into this book, I wasn’t sure what I was going to think of it because on the one hand I love Roxane Gay’s writing but on the other I haven’t read many short stories and was unsure how I would found it. This meant I was pleasantly surprised when I enjoyed it so much I finished it in a matter of days.

The brilliance of these short stories is completely down to Gay’s incredible ability to portray women from such varied backgrounds and experiences. Despite being only one person, Gay is somehow able to write about these different women in a beautiful and truly insightful way. These stories give us excerpts of women’s lives; how they live, how they are treated and how they feel. We are given stories of women who live lives of poverty and of privilege, in loving and loveless relationships, however Gay does place a focus on the abuse and violence women can face.

Not only does Gay write about varied examples of violence experienced by women but also how different women cope with violence, how they use it, and how it impacts their lives going foward even once when it is no longer an immediate threat to them. Some of the most interesting stories focus on women who choose to put themselves in harmful or violent situations because they cannot cope with the reality of their lives and believe that they deserve to be treated as though they are nothing.

Gay writes about the tragic experiences of women with both objectivity and compassion, creating women who may as well be living, breathing people that you cannot help but sympathise with. Reading this collection will only enhance your understanding of the complexity of what it means to be a women who faces abuse.

Girl, Woman, Other

Bernardine Evaristo

I have finally read last year’s Booker prize winner and it might be one the best books I’ve read in a long time. The book follows the lives of twelve different characters, most of whom are women of colour, across several decades, giving insight into the varied experiences they have and how they shape the differing perspectives they have on the world.

Each of the characters are complex and flawed and yet Evaristo always manages to position the reader from a point of empathy when reading their chapter. Since the different characters are connected through various relationships, the reader often gets snippets of information about characters you have yet to read about which allows you to form a prior opinion of them which makes reading their chapters especially interesting. There is always more to a character and their life than expected which is eye-opening to read.

My favourite chapter was probably the first one about Amma’s life. Amma is a black lesbian living in London in the 1980’s fighting for her rights and trying to get into the theatre. Her life in the 80’s juxtaposed with her life in the present day is fascinating as it demonstrates how the world has changed and how her views and life have changed along with it, including her becoming a parent and transitioning into the mainstream theatre industry.

Evaristo also expertly demonstrates how systemically racist and sexist structures within society can unite women, particularly women of colour, whilst highlighting how different they all are and how so many other factors in life can determine where they end up. For instance, Carole’s journey through elite academia and the world of banking which required her to conform to society’s expectations in so many ways puts her in a wholly different position to Amma’s life as a black lesbian who refuses to meet any expectations that don’t match up to her own desires and combats systemic racism, sexism and homophobia through this rejection.

However, despite these differences, Evaristo successfully conveys the shared experiences that ultimately bring these women together and often drives them to help each other out, whether this means mentoring young women of colour to try and give them an extra step up in life or providing a safe space for women when they need it.

Finally, I enjoyed the style of Evaristo’s writing far more than I expected to. Evaristo’s writing lacks standard capitalisation, punctuation or sentence structure which allows the stories to flow far more naturally and creating a feeling of the characters naturally reflecting back on their lives rather than a more contrived and deliberate narrative being told. This stream of conscience style combined with the natural inclusion of key physical details and references to wider debates, such as who has the most privileged or trans exclusionary feminism, results in a deeply insightful and thoroughly enjoyable novel.

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982

Cho Nam-Joo

I started and finished this book in a day, partly because I’m on lockdown with a lot of free time, but mostly because I couldn’t put it down. After being recommended this by my girlfriend, I was thrilled that I had the chance to read it.

The book follows the life of Kim Jiyoung from early childhood up until her early thirties, exploring what it is to be a woman in Korean society. The novel beautifully conveys how wearing daily life can be for women in South Korea through depicting the how relentlessly Jiyoung is put down and held back simply for being a woman. This relentless quality was, I believe, conveyed so effectively because the novel itself was only short. Where I felt the effect of this daily sexism and misogyny, I at no point felt bogged down by it, which I think could have happened had it been a longer book.

I loved the insight into how children were raised in South Korea during the 80’s and 90’s, how boys were, and to a large extent still are, favoured to the point of women aborting babies once they find out they were having a girl. This was also emphasised by the inclusion of various statistics regarding gender equality in South Korea.

I also particularly enjoyed the characterisation of Kim Jiyoung’s mother and how she walked the line of understanding what she had given up because she was a woman, and trying to avoid that happening to her daughters, and still playing favourites with her son. She frequently stands up for her daughters, ensuring they don’t have to give up the things she did and making sure they have more, but then still sacrifices for her son in small daily acts, such as giving up food for him, and never asks as much of him.

This brings me to one of the other aspects of the book which I loved, which was the role Jiyoung’s brother, the boy and youngest child of the family, plays, or rather lack of role he plays. The invisibility of him as a character really speaks to the aim of novel to highlight the lives of women in South Korean, where so often men are central to narratives. The son is barely mentioned by name, is only central to a scene once and is never the focal point of any aspect of story, instead being the background character who is normally considered first within the family but not to be considered in this book.

Finally, I have to mention the ending to this book, but will try to do so without giving too many spoilers. The final chapter of the book is from the perspective of the male medical professional treating Jiyoung and it perfectly sums up the issue men have when thinking about the difficulties women face. Even the men who take the time to understand how often women are held back in society, they almost always fall at the last hurdle, as is perfectly summed up in the final two sentences of the book.

Only Ever Yours

Louise O’Neill

Louise O’Neill quickly became one of my favourite authors after reading her novels Asking for It and The Surface Breaks and so I was thrilled that her debut novel, Only Ever Yours, did not disappoint.

The book is told from the perspective of Frieda, an eve entering her final year at school and struggling to hold up under the pressure to be perfect in order to be chosen as a companion. The book follows Frieda’s desperate attempts to remain ranked in the top 10 eves whilst her friendship with Isabel, who is buckling under the pressure, slowly fractures.

O’Neill writes with an intelligent severity that creates a world in which you can find nothing good and yet cannot stop reading. She generates a hope for a happy ending that you ultimately know is never possible.

She beautifully creates female characters so far removed from the heroines we so often seen that are kind, pure and, above all, good. In all her books, O’Neill focuses on young women trapped by their flaws of selfishness or jealousy, generated by a society that tells them that their value is limited to their beauty.

However, what is truly remarkable about her novels, is that despite the lack of likeable qualities she gives her characters, O’Neill never fails to make you sympathise with them because of the trauma they experience.

I will admit that at the start this was my least favourite of O’Neill’s novels, however this could have easily been because it was the first YA novel I’ve read in a while and so it took me slightly longer to get used to writing style or it may have been because this was her first novel, either way after a few chapters I was thoroughly engrossed in the book.

Frieda’s desperation and intense loneliness is beautifully conveyed, but what is truly fascinating is how convincingly O’Neill creates a world in which it is true that no cares about her. In contrast to our world where the response people with a state of mind like Frieda’s is to tell the individual how loved they are and to help them see their own worth, as eve every fear of Frieda’s is constantly reinforced for her. In this world it is true that no one really cares what happens to her, except Isabel, and it is true that worth is solely found in her appearance.

I would describe this book as being somewhere between Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games. As the reader you are thrust into an unknown dystopian world reminiscent of Atwood’s novel, but the YA style and teenage protagonists feel closer to Collins’ trilogy. I would absolutely recommend this to anyone looking for a YA novel with overtly dark edge to it.

Little Women (2019)

Little Women is one of my all-time favourite books so when I the recent film came out I went to see it as soon as possible and it did not disappoint.

The film starts by following the March sisters as adults and then proceeds to alternate between scenes of their childhood together and scenes of how their adult lives have turned out together. This distinction is most clearly demonstrated through the use of a warm, golden overtone when watching their childhood, contrasting greatly with the cooler blue hues used to depict the cold reality of their adult lives, a stylistic choice of Gerwig’s that ought to be applauded.

Furthermore, the outstanding cast truly completed the film, the performances drawing you into this other world seamlessly, with Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh’s performances being particularly impressive. Ronan truly embodies the character of Jo March whilst Pugh gives Amy a well-deserved likeable quality, I have not previously come across with regard to the youngest March sister, who is often portrayed as merely a selfish and somewhat immature younger sibling.

Finally, one of my favourite parts of the film is definitely the ending which cleverly pairs the dramatic scenes of Jo chasing the man she loves with her also discussing the publishing of her novel, mirroring a scene from the start of the film.

However, a more important aspect of the film is the undercurrent of feminist thought that runs throughout this 19th century story. The principle that stories of domestic life; that women’s stories are important, as Amy tells Jo, adds an emphasis to the significance of the film. Similarly, the discussion between Laurie and Amy where Laurie poses the question: ‘how many women are allowed into the club of geniuses anyway?’ holds an even greater weight in light of the recent Academy nominations which have once again overlooked the work of many talented women. Finally, Amy’s powerful speech about how marriage is ultimately an economic proposition for women makes for a breath of fresh air next to so many films that centre women, particularly period dramas, who simply look to find a romantic partner and give no reference to the practicalities of what this might mean for them.

Overall, this film was one of the best I’ve seen in a while and more than does justice to the much beloved novel it is based. I would recommend to anyone, whether you’ve read the book or not, that you go to see this film.