cover image The Secret Lives of Church Ladies

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies

Deesha Philyaw. West Virginia Univ, $18.99 trade paper (192p) ISBN 978-1-949199-73-4

Philyaw’s triumphant debut collection follows a series of Southern black women as they struggle for self-determination. In “Eula,” 40-year-old Caroletta meets her childhood friend and fellow church member Eula in a motel room to celebrate New Year’s Eve. Both single ladies have yet to find what they need from men, and one still considers herself a virgin despite the two of them having had trysts for decades. That night, they preserve a semblance of respectability (“You outdid yourself,” Eula tells Caroletta, about a potato salad she’d made), while licking sparkling wine from one another. In “Peach Cobbler,” Olivia recounts her mother’s affair with a pastor who would come to the house when Olivia was five and whom she equated with God (“God was an old fat man, like a Black Santa, and I imagined my mother’s peach cobbler contributing to his girth”). While Philyaw occasionally gets ahead of herself, as in “Jael,” about a teenage girl who takes revenge on a 35-year-old sexual predator (the slim story loses power from its multiple point-of-view shifts), for the most part she soars, notably in “How to Make Love to a Physicist,” about a woman’s liberation from generations of body hatred. Philyaw’s stories inform and build on one another, turning her characters’ private struggles into a beautiful chorus. Agent: Danielle Chiotti, Upstart Crow Literary. (Sept.)