The Devil You Know is a powerfully feminine collection of short stories from experienced writer Jenn Farrell. Each story reveals different girls, and every one seems wholly authentic: in their desires, in their fears, in their beings. The whole thing reads like an astute portrait of womanhood today.
In “Tested,” a young girl wants to find out if she’s pregnant. It’s not a fairy-tale story, as she pees in a Tim Horton’s bathroom, hoping no one in her entourage will find out about her possible fertility. “Day of the Dead” offers a Camus-esque morbid adventure about a woman coping with the technical details of burying a mother she never really loved.
Two stories are particularly brilliant. In “Grimsby Girls,” the author collects stories of girls who have lost their virginity: how it happened, when, with whom. While the premise is simple and the style is sober (it’s almost journalistic), the effect is powerful and intense: even if some of these experiences were pleasant, there is definitely the feeling of loss, of exploitation, of innocence gone, in each of the anecdotes.
It’s interesting to find the narrator including her own experience as the last anecdote in that story: a girl having sex with a boy in her car, a disappointed father, and that girl finding something she will never let go of: sex. The narrator has clearly discovered a force inside her she cannot ignore.
“Soft Limits” features the sexual evolution of a self-described liar. She lies to make things more interesting because she finds her life too banal. The web of lies actually distances her from most people, until she meets a man with whom she quickly develops a sexual relationship. But not just any kind of relationship. Her sexual partner, Troy, makes her submit to a BDSM relationship. In the bruises and the cuts and the strangling she finds herself anew, and her whole life seems changed.
In her relationship, the pleasure and the self-fulfillment are distinctly linked with personal humiliation at the hands of the pleasure-giver. She does eventually discover he’s allowed her to become a different person, and she doesn’t need the humiliating and painful sex anymore, but it’s a long journey before the original lying woman decides to accept herself and move on with her life.
Troy licked the blood away, then pushed me into a kneeling position on the floor. He stood and, gathering my hair in one hand and lifting my face to him, smacked me over and over across the face with his erection. I shifted my weight enough to grind my clitoris against my right heel, as we came together, me against my foot and Troy on my bruised and bleeding breasts. It was marvelous.
Hot may be the right word. Twisted also. What’s interesting about this particular segment is she actually achieves orgasm herself, with her heel, even though she was in a submissive, painful position. The independence, within a dual dynamic may be what provokes the woman into achieving actual independence in her own life, and abandoning the fallacies she imposed upon others and herself. The sort of experience that defines a person, but that one wouldn’t necessarily go back to.
While these two examples have strong sexual themes, it’s not to say Jenn Farrell is unable to explore different phenomena. Her wide spectrum allows her to consider much more, but her mastery of sexualized prose merits attention and mention.
Overall, The Devil You Know is a powerful, revealing read from an uncompromising writer. The women in these stories are real, three-dimensional, alive, and thinking. Smart and sexy.