Book Review – The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw

books, reviews

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I picked this up on a whim when I was browsing the January sales. I hadn’t heard of it before and was probably only interested in the cover. Thankfully, it also sounded like exactly the kind of book that I enjoy reading. Although, I’ve never been a massive fan of short story collections. I always find that they’re too, for lack of a better term, short. I’m a greedy reader and want the chance to get to know a character first. Short stories give us too brief a glimpse into their worlds and they end just as I’m getting excited. Still, I was willing to give this a chance and I figured it would be a good read during a pretty busy time. It was good to be able to dip into a short story of two a night without worrying about keeping track of a longer narrative thread.

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies is a brilliant collection of short stories that really destroyed my preconceived notions about short story collections. For one thing, I tend to expect at least a couple of forgettable stories in the bunch but every single one was wonderful. Then there’s the fact that I never think I’m going to be satisfied by short-form fiction. I enjoy getting to know characters slowly and watching them develop. There never tends to be enough time in a short story to do this. I’m happy to say that Deesha Philyaw manages to create characters with enough depth to keep me more than satisfied. This is such a strong and beautifully written collection that looks at the private and public faces of Black women.

Each story offers an example of women who are in a constant struggle between following their desires and doing what society believes they should do. Women who find that their sexuality is at odds with their religious families. Like the young woman who has to choose between her girlfriend or her mother. Or the girl who is drawn to the wife of her preacher. It’s an insight into the duality of women. Namely that they must be both virginal but are also the subject of men’s desires. This book showcases the awful double standards for men and women. Why, after all, can a preacher be guilty of adultery but it is the woman who is forced to feel shame?

It’s also a collection that is partly about the trouble that women face from the men in their lives. However, it’s not all bad. This might be a feminist collection of stories but it is one that loves decent men. We see a few good men in some of these tales to balance out the bad ones. Unsurprisingly, these men don’t have all of the typically celebrated masculine traits. Yes, they might be handsome and strong. However, they are sensitive and caring. They are passionate about nerdy things and are sensitive to women’s feelings. What we see is the difference in the way men and women are raised. Daughters are taught to behave and take care. Sons are encouraged to do what they want and be their own person. Sisters help out at home whilst brothers are out all night.

There is a wide range of emotions throughout these stories and plenty of humour. You’ll get annoyed by some people and fall in love with others. The writing is superb and absolutely captivating. It doesn’t lack beauty but it isn’t too full of unnecessary flourishes. Every single word counts. The pacing of each story works really well when put together. You have some quick and frenetic pieces followed by ones that take a bit of time to unfold. It makes for a memorable reading experience. I expected to dip in and out of this collection but I found myself really wanting to keep going. Each story is unique and every voice stands out. There is such realism and humanity in these pages and it paints such a vivid picture of what women are still facing.

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