Book Review: Shit Cassandra Saw by Gwen E. Kirby

Title: Shit Cassandra Saw
Author: Gwen E. Kirby
Publisher: Penguin
Publication date: January 11, 2022
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Short stories
Source: Purchased

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Margaret Atwood meets Buffy in these funny, warm, and furious stories of women at their breaking points, from Hellenic times to today.

Cassandra may have seen the future, but it doesn’t mean she’s resigned to telling the Trojans everything she knows. In this ebullient collection, virgins escape from being sacrificed, witches refuse to be burned, whores aren’t ashamed, and every woman gets a chance to be a radioactive cockroach warrior who snaps back at catcallers. Gwen E. Kirby experiments with found structures–a Yelp review, a WikiHow article–which her fierce, irreverent narrators push against, showing how creativity within an enclosed space undermines and deconstructs the constraints themselves. When these women tell the stories of their triumphs as well as their pain, they emerge as funny, angry, loud, horny, lonely, strong protagonists who refuse be secondary characters a moment longer. From “The Best and Only Whore of Cym Hyfryd, 1886” to the “Midwestern Girl [who] is Tired of Appearing in Your Short Stories,” Kirby is playing and laughing with the women who have come before her and they are telling her, we have always been this way. You just had to know where to look.

Please do judge a book by its cover… at least in this case. Shit Cassandra Saw‘s cover is bright, almost eye-searing, and clearly puts the reader on notice that it’s time to shake things up.

This collection of short stories covers times and settings from the ancient world to the contemporary, mixing in fantastical elements with pieces that are all too real. The women in these stories are angry, despondent, and tired of being ignored or mistreated or threatened. Told through a variety of styles and voices, the stories work as a collection by playing with perception and tropes, and letting women’s voices shout out clearly.

All that being said, some of the stories in Shit Cassandra Saw worked better for me than others. In general, I really liked the historical pieces, although a few of the contemporary stories really appealed as well.

My favorites include:

A Few Normal Things That Happen A Lot: My absolute favorite of the bunch, and it’s so weird and wonderful. From the opening lines:

A woman walks down the street and a man tells her to smile. When she smiles, she reveals a mouthful of fangs. She bites off the man’s hand, cracks the bones and spits them out, and accidentally swallows his wedding ring, which gives her indigestion.

… it’s clear that nothing here is normal, although yes, the story is about things that happen a lot. Random men telling women to smile. Creepy dudes on subways exposing themselves. Male joggers following maybe a bit too closely. Unwanted comments about appearance. All those little moments that are really so common that every woman has experienced them in one way or another.

In this story, the author does an amazing job of portraying how fear of these moments pervades women’s lives, turning simple things like a walk from one’s car to the front door into something to plan and consider — and then shows how that might all turn around, given a few sci-fi-flavored twists.

This story is also available to read online via TinHouse.

Shit Cassandra Saw That She Didn’t Tell the Trojans Because At That Point Fuck Them Anyway: A short piece that’s just so well done, about all the things Cassandra could tell Trojans about, but:

She is tired of speaking to listening ears. The listening ears of the men who think her mad drive her to madness.

It ends on an oddly uplifting note, as Cassandra’s thoughts turn to all the things she wishes she could tell the women of Troy about too, things that would make them happy if they only knew.

And briefly:

Scene in a Public Park at Dawn, 1892: About two women duelists, very short, but I really liked it.

There are other stories I liked too, and a few that kind of clunked, but overall, it’s a great collection, and I really enjoyed the variety of topics and styles. Many of the stories were previously published elsewhere; some are available through the original online sites were they appeared, and some are original to this collection.

Fun fact: I might never have stumbled across this book or thought twice about it until I happened to click on a link to a story on LitHub, motivated solely by the fact that the image for the article was a scene from Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, which is a movie that I love an irrational amount. Once I clicked through and read Gwen E. Kirby’s thoughts on the movie and how its “stabbiness” empowers the women in it, I was sold!

This sort of stylized violence, stabbiness if you will, emerges in my writing as a fascination with women from history who fight and with contemporary women who wish they could. Stabbiness makes me wonder how violence in these very specific contexts can feel affirming, even as violence is the thing being defied.

You can read the article here.

As I’ve mentioned countless times on this blog, I really don’t consider myself a short story reader, and I don’t typically have the patience to read an entire book of stories. With Shit Cassandra Saw, I took a slower approach, reading just one or two stories per day, and found the entire experience really enjoyable. I’m glad I took the time to appreciate this book. If you like your stories on the weird side with a strong feminist theme throughout, check out this collection!

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