Book Review

In Greek mythology, Apollo grants Trojan priestess Cassandra the power to prophesize the future, but curses her after she refuses his sexual advances by making sure no one believes her visions, therefore facilitating the destruction of both Cassandra and Troy. But in Gwen E. Kirby’s electric, poignant, hilarious, and fiercely feminist story collection, Shit Cassandra Saw, modern women get to both possess and wield “gifts” (some supernatural) that give them strength over offending men. Initially, they love, embrace, and have fun with their newfound powers; in “A Few Normal Things That Happen a Lot,” a fanged woman passes a man who tells her to smile and she promptly bites off his hand. To ward off male aggression, the scaly, armored inventors of radioactive female-cockroach-warriors wage their own fiery assaults, but wish “they could be smooth and whole, some softer version of themselves.” Kirby reveals the toll of constantly battling objectification, oppression, and violence by men. No wonder so many of these women are, like Cassandra in the title story, “done, full the fuck up, soul weary.”

Matching violence with violence carries its own trauma and suffering, as a fanged woman discovers after getting an abscess. Even the fanged hand-biter ends up with indigestion from accidentally swallowing the male “victim’s” wedding ring. In the same story, a radioactive cockroach woman initially feels “better, reckless, and free” as she walks the streets of New York with her friends freely, heckling and laughing at “oversensitive” men who now fear and flee women. After her boyfriend decapitates her in her sleep, she kills him and lives a week longer. But she’s also haunted by the trauma and terror of knowing the man she loved decapitated her—and even more so the reality that destroying him “has not made her whole again.” In Kirby’s collection, women must mask their vulnerability even as they recognize it as its own superpower.

Even those women who delight in their powers barely get to enjoy their elation before grappling once again with the fragile egos of their male partners. For instance, the werewolf woman who howls with joy in her backyard, reveling in the strength of her lungs, realizes that her husband won’t forgive her for not wanting to share her power. And in “Here Preached His Last,” the adulteress wife enjoys an affair, regretting only that it took so long for her “to learn to use my body for its own sake,” but fears it will leave her with yet “another person to apologize to.” Only the character granted the superpower of forgetting gets to rest easy, despite witnessing a man masturbating on a subway, her mind wiped clean of trauma.

Despite the weight of their themes, these stories are dynamic, playful, inventive, and brilliant. One of Kirby’s many gifts is her capacity to seamlessly move between laugh-out-loud, devastating and visceral (see “We Handle It”), and moments of deep empathy—often in the same scene. Just read the incisive “Jerry’s Crab Shack: One Star,” a Yelp review-turned-confessional of a beleaguered, passive-aggressive husband too downtrodden by others’ demands to acknowledge his own. The story explores the impact of society’s toxic gender expectations on men as well as women.

Kirby wisely chooses not to valorize these women, therefore making them more relatable and authentic. While the narrator of “Here Preached His Last,” an ambivalent mother, wants a daughter whose scars have “better stories behind them,” she fears for her carefree daughter, aware that “the world is hard for girls who haven’t learned to be cautious.” Even as she hopes the future will be progressive enough to welcome her adult daughter, she anticipates bleakness. No wonder Megan, who masquerades as another woman after a series of men call the wrong number in “For a Good Time, Call,” wishes, after stating her real name, that “it was the confession of a secret identity, rather than a condition from which she might never recover.”

Yet, Kirby’s collection also offers hope; even as Cassandra anticipates her own rape and murder, she shows Troy’s women a future of vibrators, mace, and, best of all, one in which “Trojan” becomes associated with condoms rather than toxic masculinity. In response, the women unfurl a condom “over their heads like a new flag, like a promise of better things to come.” And though the satisfaction that women gain from their powers in “A Few Normal Things . . .” is fleeting, we get a glimpse of a future in which women, unconstrained by male violence, smile at one another on the street.

As Audre Lorde writes in The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House, for women “the need and desire to nurture each other is not pathological but redemptive, and it is within that knowledge that our real power is rediscovered.” When women are no longer expending energy warding off male aggression, perhaps we can focus more on female connection.

And there is power in owning and sharing our stories. Even as Kirby’s women find themselves in turn liberated, drained, and constrained by their so-called powers, they claim and commandeer their stories—another great superpower. The narrator of “First Woman Hanged for Witchcraft” uses magic for healing, but she also notes: “Already I am making the story my own.” As embodied in the excellent “Midwestern Girl Is Tired of Appearing in Your Short Stories,” Kirby’s women refuse to remain peripheral, to be weaponized for male fulfillment and gratification. They’re ferocious, complex, restless, and flawed, and in sharing power through vulnerability, they empower their audience as well.

About the Reviewer

Keya Mitra is an associate professor and directs the creative writing major and editing and publishing minor at Pacific University, where she also edits the internationally distributed literary journal Silk Road Review: A Literary Crossroads. In 2021-2022, she was named a finalist by PEN America for the 2021 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction for her novel Human Enough, and receives a prestigious, $10,000 Graves Award in the Humanities to research her novel, Immigrant Delay Disease, in Meghalaya, India. A Fulbright Scholar, graduate—PhD and MFA—of the University of Houston’s creative writing program, and Bread Loaf and Sewanee scholar, Keya’s work has appeared in Best New American Voices, The Kenyon Review, The Bellevue Literary Review, The Southwest Review, and many more. Her work won the 2021 Tobias Wolff Fiction Award and runner-up for Witness Magazine’s 2021 Literary Nonfiction Award. Her short story collection has been shortlisted for the Flannery O’Connor, Mary McCarthy, Iowa Short Fiction (semifinalist), Dzanc Diverse Voices, and Bakeless Prizes.