As a bibliophile who has accepted that I will immediately spend what I make working at our campus bookstore at said store, I am always looking amongst our store shelves for new, exciting reads. Since my first day on the job, I have been intrigued by a book with a title that demands your attention propped up only feet away from my post at the register. I have seen many tourists, Sewanee alumni, professors, students, and mountain voyagers alike stop by our store and leave holding Shit Cassandra Saw with a grin. So, as of a few weeks ago, I decided to give the collection of short stories a read myself, and after doing so, I hope to hand many more prospective readers a receipt for the bright blue book doused in illustrated flames.
Many around Sewanee know Gwen E. Kirby as the associate director of programs and finance for the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, an advisor for the University’s Writing House, and a professor of creative writing. However, I now recognize her first and foremost as the brilliant author whose “stories of women at their breaking points” hurt my gut with wit-filled humor and my heart with their recognition of the daily pains of womanhood that are so common they often go unacknowledged and so old they often feel woven into our very nature.
In one story, titled “A Few Normal Things That Happen A Lot,” the sudden appearance of superhuman abilities in women sparks a societal wide gender role reversal in which men suddenly feel the prickle down the backs of their spines when walking down the street late at night that these women used to be familiar with. In “Jerry Crab’s Shack: One Star,” a middle-aged man’s Yelp review of a restaurant turns into a review and ranking of his wife. In another, the girls of a high school softball team ponder over how to approach a game against a team of girls just like them who have recently experienced a tragedy at their own school. A married mother and professor personifies her guilt about having an ongoing affair into a preacher who, at the end of the day, seems to be her only true companion. The first woman to be hanged for witchcraft, a cross-dressing pirate, and a Japanese warrior all tell their respective stories leading to their untimely deaths. An older sister’s projected fears for her younger sister stop her from enjoying their vacation in Inishmore, and a mother using a Wikihow page cannot bring herself to admit to her sons or anyone else that she does not know how to correctly lay tile without the help of her husband who has left her for someone else. Finally, a group of girls at a summer camp try and fail to cope with their multiple encounters with a strange, older man by approaching the subject with humor that turns into fear that turns into anger.
These stories and others between the book’s front and back covers are each laced with a witty and brutal honesty reminiscent of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s protagonist in Fleabag who admits to her audience her deep fear that she is greedy for looking after herself, perverted for having a sex life, and apathetic for the dark humor she uses to combat a cynical world; all traits that make her feel like less of a good woman. The sheer length of history Kirby’s stories cover relates to Hozier’s “Swan Upon Leda,” a song that reminds listeners that violence against women is as old as humanity itself. And, as the back cover will tell readers, “Margaret Atwood meets Buffy in these funny, warm, and furious stories.” All of these works of art touch what Kirby dives head-first into: a commentary on some of the struggles a gender faces ranging from big to small and all too often ignored.
Some of Kirby’s characters express a fear of showing their emotions lest they be deemed hysterical while others suffer the hysteria that emerges after a lifetime of choking down one’s emotions. Some worry they do not possess the good looks to earn attention from others, and other characters are reduced only to their good looks. Some characters greet readers with a sense of innocence and hope and say goodbye in voices lined with loss, and others simply never had such hope and speak in detached tones from beginning to end. All characters beg for a pair of ears to speak to, and while Kirby offers a microphone to each, I hope more become part of these women’s audience.