Reviewed: Women I Know, Katerina Gibson, Scribner
What is ‘woman’? A performance, perhaps. Or a category into which some of us are sorted. Maybe it is a story—or stories—we are told, which through mere regurgitation have come to accept as real. In Katerina Gibson’s short story ‘Intermission II: On the Mythology in the Room (Field Notes)’, from her debut collection Women I Know, the narrator takes us on a guided tour through some iterations of ‘womanhood’, familiar constructions found in myth, fable and fairy tale: various different wicked witches, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella. How narrow, Gibson appears to be lamenting, is the view of womanhood that these are our archetypal examples of the form.
I wonder what to think, then, about the women Gibson knows—or at least those she shows us in Women I Know. The book is a focused, taut but ultimately unsatiating collection of stories centred on the interior lives of women whose solitary, neurotic worlds paint a negative picture of womanhood. Perhaps if these stories were not presented to me as a gender commentary, they may not come across as so limited.
It’s a little unfortunate that Gibson has landed on such a fixed and repetitive mantra through which to articulate the idea of womanhood. The women in Gibson’s stories are mostly straight, educated, socially mobile, city-dwelling, feckless, friendless and petrified by climate catastrophe. It’s almost as if one woman is moving through each story, trying on different hats and staying in different houses.
But Gibson succeeds most when she casts off this singular identity and loosens up her authorial voice. In ‘A Dog’s World’, one of the book’s more memorable pieces, a single mother struggles with a bad knee, a bad son and a stifling sense that everything outside her immediate field of vision is unreal, while in ‘Constellation in the Left Eye’ a young factory worker who places eye parts inside the heads of human-like dolls gets a disturbing request one day on the factory line. Meanwhile, ‘As the Nation Still Mourns’ follows an ecologist who travels to the Whitsundays to take up a bizarre job for a wealthy philanthropist.
Most times, however, we’re left with Gibson’s singular ‘woman’, and the stories begin to flow together like softly lapping waves. The young protagonist attempting to change every aspect of her life in order to trick the algorithms on her mobile phone in ‘Glitches in the Algorithm’ could be doppelgänger to the narrator of the diverting ‘Preparation’, who becomes all-consumed in cataloguing her #projectplastic on social media. I wondered if the cynical protagonist in ‘All Noise Through the Fog Will Be Forgiven’ is a younger version of the driven but anxious woman in ‘A Tight Schedule’. As I drew connections between these women, I was reminded of the protagonists in Paige Clark’s She Is Haunted, a similarly disaffected bunch of mostly middle-class millennials. The women writers of my generation (see: Jennifer Down, Emma Cline) are not feeling great about life, it seems.
Gibson is a deft writer, with a curious bluntness to her prose that occasionally reveals delicious images. I like the description, in the excellent ‘Orchestra of Animals’, where ‘the sun begins to sink in an underwhelming shift from light to twilight blue’, as it recognises that not all sunsets are spectacular. Gibson has a knack for describing the uncanny things we experience in everyday life, and she often turns them into speculative drama, such as with the eerie and clever ‘Fertile Soil’ where the protagonist Anna finds that her life no longer belongs to her, because another Anna has inhabited it, and Gibson writes, ‘I felt, as I rubbed my thumb over my fingertips, as if their prints would dissolve.’
In her more confident moments, and more ambitious stories, Gibson’s writing is chewy and engaging. When it feels as though she is trying to hang it all together on a theme, it’s the odd simultaneous sensation of more focus, but less of the arrows hitting their mark.