Book Review: Banshee

By Diana Love

Banshee opens with a moment of bodily violence and tragedy. Not the personal tragedy of Samantha Baxter, sitting in an oncologist’s waiting room, moments from the cancer diagnosis which will unravel her, but the tragedy of a stranger:

The flesh blew off her bones underground. That’s how the waxy anchorman put it; you could feel his lips loving to make the shape of the word blew. The reason they knew? They’d had to exhume her. He sighed, going for horror, but conveying pleasure, maybe not accidentally.

So begins Rachel DeWoskin’s delicious, dangerous swoop of a novel. Sam pushes the grisly news story off-kilter, focusing less on the dead girl specific than on the suspect perversions of dead girl media universal—a link between the suffering of dead women in television shows, and the suffering of the figure we were about to meet on the page. This would not be, I realized immediately, the fragile narrative of a meek or docile patient. This would not be the narrative of a patient person.

Set just before and in the few weeks immediately following Sam’s diagnosis of breast cancer, Banshee hurtles us forward through a tight and tense timeline. With a double mastectomy and a not small glimpse of mortality looming, Sam began taking actions which I found as strange as they were compelling. In starts and in impulsive stuttering stops, Sam begins to burn down her own life. A professor of poetry, Sam starts sleeping with one of her own graduate students — the much younger Leah — cheating on her husband Charles for the first time and breaking with the ethics of her professional position.  Less an affair of the heart than one of the flesh, Sam is casually incautious with Leah’s feelings, not thinking too hard or too carefully about how these trysts will impact her life or marriage after her scheduled mastectomy, once she is in recovery.  Indeed, Sam spends much of the novel thinking large and very universal thoughts about pretty much everything except what might happen after  this operation. If there is, indeed, to be an after. She is much more concerned with sloughing off the weight of everything that has been her life until now. Sam has outbursts at faculty meetings, calling out hypocritical behaviors she’d previously been politically savvy enough not to mention. She hides in the back of her own car in the university parking lot, unwilling to teach class. She skips office hours for secret rendezvous with Leah, goes home to watch midday television.

As readers, we stay close to Sam, privy to her true thoughts, able to see the angers and desires that drive her. Outwardly erratic, I watched her behavior crystallize around a tight inner credo: to never again do anything for the sake of others alone. When Charles confronts her about the bits of the behavior he can directly observe—and Charles seems capable of observing only the barest tip of that iceberg—he demands to know what this cancer diagnosis means. “It means fucking my student,” Sam thinks furiously.

It means fucking my student, and never being polite or apologizing again. It means shedding every rule like itchy lizard skin, suffocating all the people I love most, you included, and freeing myself. Then putting back on only the ideas and habits I believe deserve to be worn.

“It just means I need a minute to think through who I am,” she ultimately says to Charles, comparatively blandly, “in case this is the end.”

DeWoskin has been clever in her construction of Samantha Baxter and of her world. She does not give Sam a directly abusive husband, just an unimaginative one who sees Sam’s emotional unmooring in the face of her diagnosis as unreasonable—and unseemly—behavior. She does not give to Sam bowel cancer, or bone, or any of the more immediately terrifying varieties, but breast. A cancer which can have a relatively high survival rate, especially when caught early as is the case in Banshee. She sketches for Sam a callow affair with a young student, letting us witness the full range of Sam’s irritation and impatience at Leah’s every bit of earnestness toward a love affair. DeWoskin provides Sam with a daughter, too, nearly the same age as her graduate student lover – Alexi, who Sam is convinced would be disgusted to learn about Leah. So DeWoskin does not allow too much self-righteous wind to puff up Samantha’s sails. Even Sam herself, at points, is struck with self-revulsion: Was it possible that I had never read a female character as disgusting as I was turning out to be? And if so, what did that mean for me as a human being?

Yet I couldn’t help being charmed by Sam, by her fierce and selfish desire to follow her own desires. In a world filled with unsympathetic doctors, milquetoast partners, and dead girls strung up from trees, who doesn’t want a little selfish rage now and then? Freedom to be her worst self allows us to catch glimpses of all the other milder, nicer, calmer selves Sam and scores of other women often compromise themselves to be. Might not there be a little bit of Banshee in each of us? That harbinger of death, that uniquely female form of violent rage—what might we do should the banshee come to call?

Diana Love is a poet and short story writer, somewhat working on her first novel. Her work has previously been published in Literary Mama, and she is a current MFA student in the low-residency program at UC Riverside. Diana grew up amidst the inanities, adventures, and mundanities of the greater San Fernando Valley. She is currently on the Westside, where she is a co-lead for the Westside Chapter of Women Who Submit. She is an excellent whistler.