Book Review – 'Female Education' by Rita Ciresi

I purchased a copy of this book on Amazon.

In this thought-provoking collection of flash fiction, Rita Ciresi examines the act of being female and the implications of femaleness on different stages of life. Girlhood, womanhood, patriarchal constraints and societal expectations all raise their heads in this exploration of what it is to be female, the triumphs of the feminine, and the sacrifices involved in conforming – and trying to break free from – the construct.

The characters push back against the roles assigned to them by society – from the girl baking muffins in home ec to the aspiring professor whose ambition is stymied by old academia, the wife who struggles with her late-in-life role as carer to the expatriate stuck in her husband’s shadow, prevented from crafting a meaningful life for herself. Each of these women provide a window into how the role of femaleness is perceived at different stages. One of the most gently heartbreaking stories is ‘Notes for a Very Long Love Story’, which is the only one told from a husband’s perspective and demonstrates the chasm left by the absence of a much-loved wife. 

Ciresi’s writing is both beautiful and accessible. This is spare prose, but every word counts. The regular variations on tense and voice allow readers to examine the tropes from the outside, as well as get into the protagonist’s head. This brings a real sense of the despair and frustration some of the characters feel as they rail against their position. Pacing is used especially well in ‘On His Way to American History’, where the tension rises beautifully before falling back into a final, stunning image:

I’ll have to gun it to get back before the afternoon rain starts to fall and the road home becomes jammed with a long line of bright yellow school buses, their headlights turned on like cars in a funeral procession.

The stories range in length from several pages to a single sentence, and each has a strong emotional pull, with an emphasis on poignant details that bring them to life. Ciresi’s titles use subtle but pointed wordplay, peeling away with subsequent readings to reveal new meaning. Rita uses linked micros to great effect in several pieces, building longer narratives from small ones that would stand just as well on their own. 

Female Education is a thoughtful, intriguing collection of flash fiction pieces that clings tightly to its central theme. Skilfully written, it stands up very well to subsequent readings and is gentle in dealing with difficult issues; while not shying away from asking the reader to consider the hard questions about femaleness in the world, and what the world demands from that role. Triumphant and devastating – often at the same time – this book stays with the reader, echoing long afterwards in the questions that quietly beg for answers. 

Female Education is available now on Amazon.

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