There is a moment near the end of These Women, by Ivy Pochoda, when a character has to explain her art. This character, Marella, creates audiovisual pieces using found photographs. Her piece, “Dead Body #3,” features photos taken by a woman who is later found murdered. The photos the murdered woman took perfectly captured the life she and her crew lived as exotic dancers and sex workers. Marella explains the images and her art in terms of how the audience is supposed to feel the violence that was inflicted on these women. The way that Marella steals their images is the latest in a long line of people taking advantage if them. Reading Marella’s intellectualization of her art really brought home for me the way that society thinks of these women—sex workers, especially those who have been murdered—as disposable, degraded, and despicable. These Women is a ferociously powerful and moving novel.
Unlike traditional procedural and mystery novels, most of These Women happens on the periphery of a series of serial murders. There are clues scattered throughout the novel, but I wasn’t focused on putting them together. Instead, I got lost in the pitch-perfect thoughts of Pochoda’s cast. The women who tell this story are astonishingly real. All of them are lost in their own, often frantic thoughts. One of them, Dorian, lives a half-life as a grieving mother whose daughter was killed by the serial killer. Another is a sex worker, Julianna, who is struggling to find a way out of the life. Later, the narrative shifts to an LAPD Vice detective named Perry with a fractured mind that works like a crossword puzzle writer. Her determination to solve the killer’s old and new murders might be a way for her to finally prove that she’s a good cop. The last narrators, one a woman with a terrible secret (Anneke) and another who is the sole survivor (Feelia), have extraordinary chapters—ones that finally put all the pieces together.
As I became absorbed in the narratives in These Women, I constantly thought about the concept of the “less-dead.” This term, which I learned about from listening to true crime podcasts but one that I know is much older, refers to homeless people, poor people of color, sex workers, drug users, who never seem to get the appropriate attention from law enforcement and the media. The women who don’t get to tell their stories in These Women, yet who are the catalyst for the entire story, are the less-dead. They never got the attention they needed. So many of them were brutally murdered and, years later, in the novel’s present, more died. None of them deserved it. No one deserved that death. But, from the perspective of most of the narrators, these women some how did something to deserve being murdered, because they were sex workers. These Women, and Marella’s fictional art that is featured therein, puts the spotlight right on our societal scorn.
These Women knocked me flat. This book is seriously one of the most powerful books I think I’ve ever read. It has so much to say and it does it all in a realistic, organic way that highlights the author’s ability to create characters that jump right off the page. I cannot praise this book highly enough.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.