The premise of this novel immediately drew me in (a vampire story examining race, sexuality, and female empowerment over time and space: who wouldn’t be interested!), but I soon found myself slogging through it, despite my initial excitement.
The Gilda Stories starts with an unnamed girl who is on the run after escaping slavery in 1850s Louisiana. She is taken in and taken care of by a woman named Gilda who runs a brothel, and as time goes on it is alluded that this Gilda is a vampire, who eventually passes on her power and name to the young girl, now known as Gilda for the rest of the novel. From here, we see a series of vignette-type stories following Gilda across 200 year throughout America: moving through California in 1980, Missouri in 1921, Massachusetts in 1955, New York from the 1970s-1980s, New Hampshire in 2020, and finally a place known as “Land of Enchantment” in 2050. Throughout her life, Gilda meets different members of her greater vampire “family”, and forms bonds of her own through the people she meets and places she lives.
Despite the violence experienced by Gilda and other women throughout the novel, the book does not feel like one of pain: it has more of an energy of pain, of finding connection, of the struggle to find roots in an every-changing world, of not feeling like you truly belong anywhere, and most importantly the power and strength of relationships between women. And this is of course not to mention the racial elements of Gilda’s experiences throughout her long life, regardless of place and time.
There is something beautiful about the way Gilda manages to find different—if fleeting—places to land and new people to build relationships with. But due to the fact that she is a vampire, she holds certain people at a distance, and in turn it almost feels as if the reader is being held back. Not only that but the writing—most notably the dialogue—takes on a cryptic quality that is certainly poetic and alluding to something, but I never felt like I was being fully let in, and therefore was left confused as to what was really being said. Though truth be told, I can’t help but wonder if it was my own mental state while reading that wasn’t fully engaged, and not a fault of the writing.
As with any book I read that has a collection of shorter-style stories within a bigger framework. There are always some that work better than others, and this was once again the case with The Gilda Stories. Although the novel continued with Gilda’s character throughout the different moments of time, some of the chapters felt like they were just picking up when they were suddenly over and could have been whole standalone stories themselves if only a little more time was given to each one. Or the threads between certain times flittering in and out of the story to try and connect them or show an impact didn’t necessarily feel all that organic to me, more like cogs to keep the wheels turning (specifically, one character named Samuel was brought back over time without really feeling like he had a purpose that couldn’t have been achieved in another way).
So ultimately, The Gilda Stories was a bit of a mixed bag for me. I understand what was trying to be achieved. To an extent this was done, but unfortunately I wasn’t being grabbed by the novel like I had hoped to be based on the concept. It just wasn’t the right thing for my state of mind right now, which therefore left me feeling detached.