The Secret Lives of Church Ladies

James Joyce’s Dubliners.

George Saunders’ Tenth of December.

Raymond Carver, Shirley Jackson, Flannery O’Connor, J. California Cooper.

You can now add Deesha Philyaw and her rousingly triumphant, unapologetically feminist, black and proud collection, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies to the list of greatest short story writers and collections or all-time. So cohesive in theme; so poignant and pointed in place, time and POV; so layered in thought and conflict and hope and despair; so raw yet beautiful in its characters…it left the kind of indelible mark a reader (who is also a writer) only dreams of and so rarely encounters.

I bought the collection on a whim during my first visit to the new Ida’s Bookshop in my cozy, little hipster downtown. The wonderfully appointed and curated shop has been described by the proprietor as “…a community hub. A secular sanctuary. A place where you can really reckon with your own stuff.”

And whoa, you get to reckon with a lot of STUFF while reading The Secret Lives of Church Ladies.

The whole sad, wonderful, tragic, triumphant history of a family gets distilled in the form of a letter in “Dear Sister.” A similar distillation of trans-generational family and community trauma comes to light in the alternating confessionals of a young teen and her granny in the unforgettable “Jael.” In “Snowfall” one half of an upwardly mobile lesbian couple wrestles with her sense of home and family after they move from the South to Pittsburgh in one of those pitch perfect slice-of-life stories that unpacks so much with so little while undulating in haunting shades of melancholic brilliance. A number of different stories grapple with the hypocrisies of the religious, extramarital affairs, and all varieties of both quiet and loud suffering that such a milieu will inevitably engender. The different styles and POVs gelled wonderfully from story to story as diverse voices across a wide spectrum of place and time were given space to breath, seethe, cry, yell, demand, demure, deflect, reflect, or punch us in the gut.

It took me a while to get through the collection as there was so much to unpack with each story, and I wanted to savor each one. Philyaw’s collection comes with my highest level of recommendation. It bristles with greatness and pathos and catharsis in the ways all the best literature does. To read these stories is an unforgettable and rewarding experience.

Review by D. H. Schleicher

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