Women! In! Peril!: stories by Jessie Ren Marshall


Review by Brian Tanguay

I can’t remember if I requested this collection of stories from the publisher or if it was just sent to me, but it arrived at a moment when I needed something different in my reading diet. I had never heard of Jessie Ren Marshall, but after reading her debut effort I won’t forget her any time soon. 

Sometimes it’s necessary to switch off one’s critical brain and simply read, laugh and appreciate a writer’s inventiveness. The dozen stories in Women! In! Peril! are wickedly funny and imaginative, each very different, shifting locales from the forgotten American heartland to Trafalgar Square in London to a rocketship called The America hurtling through space with an all-female payload. Each story is executed with flawless pitch and pace. As I read the story for which the collection is titled, I imagined an actor reciting the words on stage. The writing has a bite and sharpness that almost demands to be spoken aloud, which isn’t entirely surprising as Marshall is also a playwright.  

Marshall’s characters are often their own worst enemy, like Marion, the protagonist of “Mrs. Fisher,” who shares a cigarette with one of her students, a transgression which could result in her immediate termination. For a number of practical reasons Marion can’t afford to be fired, and yet she can’t help herself. When the student tells Marion that she’s cool, Marion replies, “I’m divorced, I’m not cool.” Marion’s ex-husband, Alec, had “requested” her departure from their marriage. Instead of a long drama, Alec sends a moving van for her things and gives her two days to go. By the time Marion shares a smoke with her student she’s not exactly her own best booster. For comfort and solace, she carries on a conversation with a large boulder; the boulder has no conception of love. 

The central character of “March 6, 2009” describes herself this way: “But with people I don’t care about I’m electric, I’m a tennis player on coke, a puppy on caffeine, bebopping and strange. Men line up in xylophone rows and I play them: tinka-tinka tonk.” Her partner, Jason, constantly therapizes her, probing for clues about childhood trauma. Emotionally cornered by Jason, she reminds herself that people are hit by buses, so why not her? Inside her own head she admits to being something of a complete mess, though she thinks she cleans up well. 

I appreciate speculative fiction that takes risks and pushes and prods the boundaries of ordinary reality, that is of our recognizable world and also the stuff of dreams and visions and untethered creativity. It gives license to my pedestrian imagination. Why can’t a toaster talk to a robot called a Jill of All? Why can’t the Jill of All have a conversation in a closet with a shoe? 

Or consider Mel, one half of the lesbian couple in “My Immaculate Girlfriend,” who insists to the complete consternation of her partner that her pregnancy is the result of a miracle, not an affair with a man or the result of artificial insemination. Mel believes in God and her partner doesn’t, but Mel is clearly pregnant so who’s to say? Her partner struggles with this idea by composing hilarious lists of possible causes and courses of action. 

These stories are strange, but they work, and even in folly the female protagonists make things happen, they demand to be seen and heard. By way of a remarkable imagination and an energetic writing style, Jessie Ren Marshall gives her characters glorious expression.