It has a simple cover, an even simpler name. The first thing I mention to those who pick up A Short History of Women is to not to be deterred by either fact -- because Kate Walbert’s new novel is anything but shallow. Rather, it’s an enthralling journey through five generations of women, connected by both blood and admirable passions.
Having never read any of Kate Walbert’s work (Our Kind was a National Book Award finalist), I looked to the first chapter to draw me in. Just as I had hoped, the first lines describe an extraordinary yet flawed woman Dorothy, immediately defined by her starvation protest during the women’s rights movement in Britain. Certainly dramatic. In 1914, her willful but untimely death sparks a sense of activism in her successors for years to come (though she is not the first woman, chronologically, in the "History". Each chapter is a family member’s story, following the same line of kin - the Barretts, and eventually the Townshends and Deels - with delightful cameos, male and female, in between.
Just as you have grown familiar with one woman, a new, refreshing life picks up where they left off, always exposing true-to-life patterns in the relationships of mothers and daughters. As the faces and eras shifted, I found that the characters could be raising children, working towards their degree, or marching in opposition to various wars, yet they all retain their wit and their sensitivity to the changing tides surrounding them.
Their journeys are complicated, to be sure, a tapestry of perpetual loss and sought identity, but I felt that each word was as deliberate as a poem’s. So deliberate, in fact, that each of its fifteen chapters warranted my closest attention, specifically to the way Walbert weaves the women together before the final pages. Walbert bounces between narrators and subjects so masterfully that the 19th century feels as pertinent as the 21st.
I do warn you that this book is not, contrary to first impressions, a history of women as a whole. What it does do is make us question the roles of women in culture and family without providing concrete answers or even solace, for now. Perhaps their struggles serve as a reason to call an older relative or simply write down your family tree... No matter what, it will without a doubt keep you enraptured with its impeccable writing and heart-wrenching dialogue from start to finish.
-- Tile Wolfe