Girl Power and Other Short-Short Stories
By Katie Cortese
Reviewed by Katie Jean Shinkle
Girl Power and Other Short-Short Stories by Katie Cortese weaves together a collection of flash fiction that explores the delicate, arduous, strange, and harrowing complexities of the various ways the gender of "girl" can manifest. In the various phases a life-journey can take, the book weaves together sections—Maidenhood, Motherhood, and Matronhood—and we follow the lives of girls in and out of succinct moments of life, glimpsing deep intricacy, complication, suffering, fear, empathy, and love in all of its many permutations, pains, and joys. The various experiences the stories touch on—the missing and murdered, bullying, death, relationships, family dynamics, bodies, self-esteem, love, sex, conceiving/carrying/desiring to have children, adultery—carry a sense of gravity tinged with dread at times, which is very compelling. But inside the gravity and dread there is also a bright levity, reminiscent of Lydia Davis or Lorrie Moore. It's a humor that is rightly timed, allowing for the light to shine through the heaviness at the exact moment when it's needed.
Cortese deftly creates an atmosphere that is not quick to dissipate through her sharp attention to detail, deep investigation in interiority, and an overall sense of empowerment that she gives to each individual girl she explores. As the title suggests, these are not helpless girls. These are not powerless girls. These are girls that defy patriarchal expectations, that are attempting to get closer to their own truths. These girls are strong, messy, and unapologetic.
These powerful, strong, messy, unapologetic girls, especially in the collection's later sections, feel very much at odds with their own personhood. They meet life on its own terms, dealing with the consequences of acting on desire, faith, love, and fear. All of the characters, whether they be nine years old or sixty years old, are finding their way, navigating the unknown, which is touching and honest. Cortese is sure to point out, with sharp ingenuity and precision, that no one has it all figured out, and the complexity of unknowing at every stage of life is unending, no matter how old someone is. In the sections of Motherhood and Matronhood, unlike the section of Maidenhood, the characters begin to lose their sense of innocence, but not their sense of wonder. They venture into new phases of uncertainty and are downright unlikeable sometimes, which is a major strength and gives them a compelling, raw, and true-to-life depth.
There are stand out stories of magical realism in this collection as well, weird experiments that are delightfully bizarre and utterly enthralling. In "Swallowed," for instance, the narrator watches a young girl named Maria Alvareno get her arm eaten by an orange: ". . . where her wrist should've been there was only a round orange blob—with teeth, like nails," ". . . Just a little orange ball, chowing down. It moved fast. We heard it snapping her bones like fresh stalks of celery." In "Disappearing Act," a sinkhole in the high school gym floor opens up and takes Sadie Washburton while she is getting bullied, leaving the reader to ponder whether the floor actually saved her from her situation. In "Hide and Seek," Cortese plays with the idea of "losing a baby" in a very comedic way, setting up a premise of a narrator misplacing her unborn fetus as if it was a sock or the remote control—one second the baby is there and the next it is gone. This isn't the first time it's happened either—her husband once found a baby in his toolbox. At one point, the narrator invents a strange nursery rhyme:
No babies in the coffee pot.
No babies in the drier.
No babies in the garbage can,
the oven or the deep fryer.
Katie Cortese has written a book that you will not soon forget; these girls stay with you long after you have put the book down, each girl pushing herself deep inside and forcing you to question if you are little bit like her, too.