Multigenerational novels about women often elicit analogies to tapestries—relationships are interwoven, themes are intertwined, and there is much braiding of narrative strands. Let us not likewise domesticate Kate Walbert’s remarkable novel A Short History of Women, which traces five generations back to Dorothy Trevor Townsend, a Cambridge-educated suffragette who commits suicide for her cause. Dorothy’s method, starvation, is agonizingly slow, and we are introduced to its brutal consequences in the opening chapter, narrated by her thirteen-year-old daughter, Evelyn. “I was afraid I would break Mum if I breathed, or spoke a word,” she says, and likens her mother’s emaciated body to “cracked sticks and hard as that.” The quiet, detached tone of Evelyn’s narration convincingly evokes her shock in confronting tragedy. Later, crossing the Atlantic on the SS Woodrow Wilson, the orphaned Evelyn dispassionately renounces any connection to her once-beloved mother: “I have sworn I’ll start from nothing; that I am now no one’s daughter.” Here and throughout the novel, Walbert’s characterizations are astute, and she captures complex, often contradictory emotions with lapidary precision.
Walbert doesn’t indulge in melodrama, nor does she sentimentalize women’s solidarity. When a group of friends hold a “rap session” to discuss abortions, errant husbands, and the like—it is 1973, and Dorothy Barrett, the suffragette’s granddaughter, is among them—their communion sounds an uneasy note of discord, even as they hold hands and call one another “Sister.” At times, such moments of incongruity resonate with gentle, ironic humor: “‘Hysteria?’ Dorothy said, hearing her own voice—hysterical.”
A Short History of Women unfolds briskly, leaping forward and backward across in time. One chapter depicts Liz Barrett in 2007, shepherding her daughter to a playdate on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where Liz and another mother, a divorcée, end up discussing their “anxiety journals” and getting sloshed on wine. The next chapter returns to 1914, when Dorothy Trevor Townsend suffers from starvation-induced hallucinations. The nonlinear structure slyly questions presumptions of social progress. What, we might ask, would the suffragette think of those “anxiety journals”?
Like Walbert’s previous book, Our Kind (a “novel in stories”), A Short History of Women is episodic and risks losing the reader as the story skips to and fro. We spend the most time with Dorothy Barrett, whose chapters provide the most substantial sense of continuity and are among the most affecting. In 2003, on the verge of divorce, she reflects on the pointlessness of those consciousness-raising sessions in the ’70s: “All that explosive talk talk talk of feeling that women suddenly did and the gin they drank and those dresses they wore—what were they called? —babydolls or cupie pies or swing sets. Something infantile and slightly obscene.”
Was the suffragette’s suicide foolish—or, worse, futile? Walbert doesn’t say. Rather, she leaves us with a potent and lingering image in the final chapter, set in 1985: the embittered Evelyn, now an eighty-four-year-old retired chemistry professor, recalling her mother’s emaciated body, “crippled as mine is now, her spine curved into a singular question.”
Rebecca Donner is the author of the novel Sunset Terrace (Macadam/Cage, 2003) and the graphic novel Burnout (Minx, 2008).