The Secret Lives of Church Ladies explores the raw and tender places where Black women and girls dare to follow their desires and pursue a momentary reprieve from being good.
There is fourteen-year-old Jael, who nurses a crush on the preacher’s wife; the mother who bakes a sublime peach cobbler every Monday for her date with the married Pastor; and Eula and Caroletta, single childhood friends who seek solace in each other’s arms every New Year’s Eve.
With their secret longings, new love, and forbidden affairs, these church ladies are as seductive as they want to be, as vulnerable as they need to be, as unfaithful and unrepentant as they care to be, and as free as they deserve to be.
Although not a huge reader of short story collections, the pre-publication waves being made about Deesha Philyaw’s debut collection, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, have been hard to ignore: everyone who has read this collection seems to have loved it and the collection has garnered early praise for its frank and funny portrayal of the lives and lived experiences of Black women and girls.
From the woman who just wants to be allowed to love her best friend to the daughter of a dying woman who seeks relief and recognition with a stranger in the hospice parking lot, the nine stories that make up The Secret Lives of Church Ladies explores the complex realities that lie behind the appearances of good church ladies.
Although the collection treads somewhat familiar territory in terms of themes – mother/daughter relationships are explored in several stories, whilst lust and guilt feature in several more – The Secret Lives of Church Ladies retains a freshness thanks both the the author’s eye for rich detail and luscious, evocative language, and for the sharp critique of the societal standards that women – and Black women in particular – are expected to uphold.
Told with both humour and tenderness, Deesha Philyaw examines the secret passions, long-maintained lies, and lived realities of her protagonists’ lives, examining the nuances that make up a life without either reserve or judgement. With her fine eye for detail and graceful command of language, she fully inhabits each of her characters: drawing the reader into their lives, their feelings, and their many complications.
Although often short and pacy, the stories that make up The Secret Lives of Church Ladies are beautifully layered: each one a little gift for the reader to unwrap and unpack. ‘Snowfall’, for example, features a young lesbian couple who have moved to the American Midwest from Florida and are now, begrudgingly, shovelling snow together. Although ostensibly a tender examination of love, the story also touches upon mother/daughter relationships by confronting the spectre of parental abandonment and the shadow that it leaves behind. As with many of the stories in the collection, the protagonists of ‘Snowfall’ also grapple with their sexual identities: torn between the acceptance and occupation of their desires and the disapproval – often implied – of family, friends, or wider social institutions.
In another story, ‘Not-Daniel’ – one of my favourites in the collection – a woman finds solace amidst sorrow by starting an illicit relationship with a married stranger in the hospice parking lot. In Philyaw’s hands, however, this seemingly simple story of infidelity becomes a subtle exploration of guilt, loss, and familial pressure, served up with a slice of wry humour on the side.
As expected in a short story collection, some stories and voices resonated with me more than others. On the whole, however, the collection was – for me – a short, sharp and perfectly-formed breath of narrative fresh air. Although poignant and often shot through with heartache, the wry humour and tender, positive LGBTQ++ rep made The Secret Lives of Church Ladies a fierce and feminist debut collection told with a fresh, bold authorial voice.
The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw is published by Pushkin Press and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery.
If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green Bookshop, Sam Read Booksellers, Book-ish, Scarthin Books, and Berts Books.
My thanks go to the publisher for providing an e-copy of the book and to Tara McAvoy for inviting me to take part in this blog tour in return for an honest and unbiased review. The tour continues until 13 June 2022 so do check out the other stops for more reviews and content!
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