12.1 | Book Review

Jess Marinaro

Sarah Freligh’s A Brief Natural History of Women: A Review

Sarah Freligh’s collection of flash fiction A Brief Natural History of Women is a kaleidoscope of snapshots from women’s lives set in and around Detroit, Michigan. This collection exists as “a post-Roe book that recalls the bad old days pre-Roe” Freligh said in an interview with novelist Leslie Pietrzyk. Each flash fiction piece leaves readers with an acute sensation of longing to know these women, but for most we only get a glimpse into a few moments from their lives. The collection meditates on grief in many forms; from the death of a brother in “Other Tongues” to dealing with televised trauma in “A Brief Natural History of Law and Order.” Despite this, there are many ways in which this novel challenges the notion that to be a woman is to perpetually suffer. It argues for women to be loud and unapologetic in their pain. It argues that community and resilience are true markers of womanhood. It argues that grief is not isolated, and that the most human thing we can do is share our grief with each other.

The collection begins with one woman’s individual grief over her brother’s death in “You Come Here Often.” The specificity in the details and the use of second person brings us close to this woman, adopting her grief as our own. From there we are given a guide through which to navigate a more collective notion of girlhood and womanhood in stories like “A Brief Natural History of How it is to be a Girl” and “A Brief Natural History of Lipstick.” Here we see many revelations related to female bodies, sexuality, and what it means to become a woman. The stories slip in and out of specificity, but they always stay open enough to allow the reader to feel they are a part of each life we see careening by us. The collection does not follow a single narrative but rather provides many short explorations of narrative that build on top of eachother with both associative and direct connections. For example, the bar in “You Come Here Often” is, “always tuned in to a Law and Order episode” linking it to the normalized violence towards women that is explored in the later story “A Brief Natural History of Law and Order.”As the collection progresses, all these small threads weave themselves together into an incredibly intricate fabric.

I find it striking and poignant that even in a collection dedicated to women, a story titled “A Brief Natural History of Our Fathers” should show up. This story, along with many others, first presents an idealized image of traditional gender roles and then with strong, poetic language, Freligh quickly strips away the veneer to reveal the belly of the beast: “Our fathers are men. What our mothers say when we ask why our fathers never cook or change diapers…Some of our fathers die drunk in head-ons or face down on the factory floor, their rotted hearts knotted as pine trees. Some of our fathers carry their coffins and try not to cry.” Freligh’s observations of masculinity are like a hot spotlight directed at these issues. Dedicating a story in this collection to a discussion of the way patriarchy has shaped male suffering feels both surprising and completely necessary at the same time. I was not expecting to see it here, and yet without it, the collection would feel incomplete. “A Brief Natural History of Our Fathers” utilizes the unique collective “we” and “us,” the first-person plural, to tell the story. Freligh does this in other places too, such as “Girl Talk,” “All We Wanted,” and many of the “A Brief Natural History of…” stories. The result of this choice is a feeling of collective understanding. The reader is being roped in with these women, and in a way we become them as we read. This can be said for Freligh’s use of the second-person perspective as well, which is used in stories like “A Brief Natural History of Law and Order” to bring readers more directly into the lives of these women. Suddenly we are being stuffed in a body bag and our dead body is being autopsied. In a moment we become the overworked mother in “Oh, the Water” and the burden of her decision to leave is now ours to bear too. In this way Freligh constantly reminds us that other peoples’ grief is not separate from ours, as much as we may like it to be.

Along with a masterful manipulation of perspective, Freligh’s use of metaphor creates throughlines that connect stories that may seem otherwise unrelated. A great example of this is the language surrounding cars and automobile machinery that can be found throughout the collection. In some places it’s obvious, such as the story “A Brief Natural History of the Automobile,” in which she uses the car to compare and commodify women: “You’re no longer a sports car but a utility vehicle whose body is chipped and dinged,” or when referring to an affair, “You understand completely. Your husband has always wanted a Mercedes, now he’s found himself a good used one.” However, cars crop up in many of the other stories in more subtle ways. The woman in “A Brief Natural History of Babies, Because” conceives a child in the back of a car, and the fathers in “A Brief Natural History of Our Fathers” are compared to “headlights on a wall, there and gone.” The car imagery that haunts this collection seems to often be associated with the disconnect between what we expect of ourselves and what we actually become. There is a sense of just trying to survive, and doing what you have to to get by. It also has a masculine connotation and reinforces how traditional gender roles often push men and women to their limits.

Freligh’s acute precision with language allows much of her prose to feel like poetry. In this way the collection almost seems to inhabit a liminal space between genres–it has a hand in everything. I think this perfectly conveys the personality of the collection. There is a refusal to compromise the women’s voices, and through the diversity of stories, a refusal to be boxed into any concrete narrative. This refusal is what sets this collection apart. Stories like “The Thing with Feathers” are candid about the fear that lurks in the ugly shadows of womanhood. The title’s reference to Emily Dickinson’s “Hope is the Thing with Feathers”, sets up the reader to expect an uplifting message of perseverance, but that’s not exactly what we get. As the narrator confesses her sadness to a stranger on the street, she shares a story of a woman named Denise in her support group saying what she is grateful for, “I’m alive, Denise said.” This strikes a chord with the narrator. She says she is grateful she doesn’t have cancer, and at times she almost wished her life did have a set expiration date so that she could be done with “the business of living.” Essentially, she lands on the thought, “I’m bankrupt. I’m alive.” Here Freligh refuses to romanticize suffering and instead cuts to the core of the feeling. Like Dickenson, Freligh embraces hope, but she acknowledges the limits to it as well. Hope does not have to be a mighty bird, and sometimes all it can be is a simple affirmation of endurance.

In our interview with her Freligh describes “A Brief Natural History of the Girls in the Office” as the story that inspired the title, and it isn’t hard to see why. Coming in at the end of the collection, its focus on female camaraderie shines a light on the way women bond over shared grief. The story follows a group of work friends who check in with each other as they grow older and life attempts to break their spirits. “A Brief Natural History of Girls in the Office” feels like a cornerstone story in this collection. It emphasizes the resilience that can be found even within mourning over painful life experiences, “The few of us who were left started bowling together on Wednesdays, pretending the pins we scattered were second wives or the exes who were late again with the support.” This resilience exists because of community. It is found in break rooms and bowling alleys, and readers are inclined to think about all the other places they’ve known this camaraderie to exist in; salons, kitchens, bar bathrooms, and college dorms to name a few. This isolated example of female friendship ends up transcending its own individual circumstances and, like every story in the collection, illuminates the power women hold in standing with each other against the relentless pain of life.

The last story of the collection “Mad” seems to bring us full circle, back to the woman we first sympathized with in “You Come Here Often.” The narrator’s aspirations are crumbling and “her heart is a stone” as she mourns her brother. The story ends with a mandated therapy appointment in which she is asked to draw what she thinks heaven looks like. With crayons she depicts a bar filled with plants and bird cages, comparing the birds’ beautiful singing to her late brother’s voice. Joe, her therapist, suggests, “Why don’t you open up the cage?…so she does. And oh, what a wild bird can do when set loose in doors.” This bird motif calls back to “The Thing With Feathers” only this time the bird’s wildness is big and destructive. This comparison also goes to show us how individual grief is intertwined with a myriad of other womens’ experiences, culminating in one final thought: “Such madness. Such carnage.” This final story ties together the entire collection and makes clear what Freligh wants to say about grief. Here the bird is still trapped indoors, causing wreckage–but she’s a little more free than she was in the cage. She can breathe just slightly easier; she has the space to express her pain as messily as she wants. Here Freligh resists the traditional Western conventions regarding grief. There is no insistence on moving on, only the recognition of all the complex weight that grieving women bear.

In more ways than one, this collection delivers on what the title offers. It is brief, and therefore not all-encompassing, however it is unflinching in its depictions of the lives real women lead. As the cover art suggests, it is an accumulation of small, but powerful, moments that reveal something larger. Sometimes it is beauty or grief, and always there is solidarity. A Brief Natural History of Women succeeds at an improbable task by interrogating womens’ grief and landing on a hopefulness that feels genuine and honest.