Deesha Philyaw’s collection of short stories about The Secret Lives of Church Women is as delicious as its striking cover suggests.
The nine stories feature four generations of characters grappling with who they want to be in the world, caught as they are between the church’s double standards and their own needs and passions.
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.
The Secret Lives of Church Ladies is such a great title for this collection of nine short stories about Black women. Deesha Philyaw takes us behind the public persona these women present to the world and into their private sphere, showing us how they live, behave, think and feel when they shrug off their Sunday best and are no longer on best behaviour.
Eula gives us a real sense of the fierce intensity and urgency of these women’s feelings and desires and sets the tone for what is to follow in this collection. It also shows the conflict which arises when those same feelings clash with their religious beliefs or upbringing; the struggle they experience each time, whether that comes from their own feelings of guilt or shame or morality, or external pressures from friends or family, their community, and even wider society.
Not Daniel is urgent in a different way as one woman seeks temporary release with a stranger in the same situation as her. I liked the matter-of-fact way this story was told and the humour along the way. Dear Sister moved me, amused me and showed me the strength we find in humour to deal with difficult situations and how sisters and half-sisters can bond. I loved the voices of these women throughout the collection; even when they think that they are failing or weak or struggle, their voices ring true with a raw honesty and resilience – the hard pit of that peach on the cover, if you will.
Peach Cobbler is as rich and juicy a story as the dessert it takes its name from, there is so much to take away from this one. It’s such a good example of how these stories are as fully rounded as the women who tell them. We see the child she is when she says, “God was an old fat man, like a Black Santa…”, follow her fascination with the forbidden fruit of the titular pudding as she grows up, and see how that manifests itself later, as she comes to realise its true significance. It’s an incredibly powerful story about a mother and daughter and everything they cannot have.
I also thoroughly enjoyed Snowfall about two women whose relationship has led them to move to a different State and who are now going through a rough patch. It’s filled with the pain of being separated from friends and family—that yearning and nostalgia for home—while also showing how love can bolster our resolve and the touching way in which people express their love for one another. How to make love to a physicist is a beautiful slow-burn of a love story where the character has to learn to “ditch the girdles your mother taught you to wear.” Jael is a story of a grandmother and her granddaughter who have no other family left but are struggling to understand each other as well as their own feelings.
Instructions for Married Christian Husbands is a pithy and very funny manual which pulls no punches. It just flows and I loved it. There was a change of tempo and tone for When Eddie Levert comes and I felt for both mother and daughter in this story. It’s heartbreaking at times but also interesting to see the changing dynamic between them and how the daughter chooses to react to that. I also liked the contrast between the brother and her male friend who sees the daughter altogether more clearly. The collection ends with Must Love IPAs, a modern tale of Internet dating and sibling brinksmanship which is ultimately funny and charming and made me close the book with a huge smile on my face.
The Secret Lives of Church Ladies is a warm, funny, refreshingly honest and affectionate look at Black women’s lives, loves, struggles and hardship. Pulsing with life and fierce, heartfelt emotion, these women’s voices are strong and compelling. Listen to them, their stories deserve to be read. I’ll happily sing their praises and can’t wait to revisit them.
The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw is published by ONE an imprint of Pushkin Press. It is available as an audiobook, ebook and in hardback. You can find it at Amazon UK (affiliate link), Bookshop.org (affiliate link), Hive and Waterstones. For more on the author, you can find her at her Author Website or over on her Facebook Page, or you can follow her on Instagram or on Twitter.
My thanks to Tara McEvoy at the publisher for a review copy via NetGalley.
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