Silence torments the women of “Difficult Women,” most of whom are victims of abuse, trauma, tragedy or some combination of the three.

In “I Will Follow You,” the opening story of Roxane Gay’s collection, the narrator explains how she and her sister are inseparable after surviving a childhood rape and kidnapping. Fear drives them to silence: “We were so little and so scared. That was enough to keep us quiet.” Later in life, their silence blooms to a reticent acceptance of subpar men.

The last story, “Strange Gods,” told in the second person, features a youngish narrator addressing her husband, explaining that she must come to terms with his goodness. She tries to push him away, admitting, “I am a vile thing next to you.” Her form of silence is a contemplative war with herself.

In “Florida,” a panoramic view of a gated community, a fitness instructor tolerates her sexually domineering lover. “She was smart enough to want more but tired enough to accept the way things were.” Her silence is the silence of exhaustion.

It wouldn’t take a cataloging; Gay’s women don’t have it easy. The “difficulty” in the title is their sarcastic comeback to doltish men who don’t understand complexity in general and the complexity of victimhood in particular.

The women here are complex, but not in the typical way of fiction. Much like Mireille, the protagonist of Gay’s profound and violent novel, “An Untamed State,” the women here reveal themselves in how their minds adjust to a world that seems bent on violating their bodies.

Many of the protagonists explore sadomasochism as a balm. The narrator of “Baby Arm,” after attending a women-only fight club, implores her lover to hurt her. “Gus traces the bruises along my rib cage and on my face, even presses them until I wince. I say harder. He obeys.”

The most memorable example comes from the poignant “Break All the Way Down,” where the narrator says this of her husband: “If Ben would break the broken places in me a little more, if he would break whatever was left of me beneath my skin, I could finally break all the way down.”

At their worst, the men here are pedophiles, rapists and sexists. At their best, they’re armchair chauvinists with occasional flares of the fist. (Which may make men the best audience for this book.)

It’s no wonder that many of the women here find comfort in friendships — some sexual, some not — with other women.

This collection begs for a slow, serious reading. Sure, some themes and scenes and gestures repeat. Maybe a handful of the stories could have been left out, but there’s too much richness to let that nettle.

 

Josh Cook’s writing has been featured in Virginia Quarterly Review, the Iowa Review, the Millions and elsewhere. He lives in the Twin Cities.

Difficult Women
By: Roxane Gay.
Publisher: Grove Press, 260 pages, $25.