Weird Kitties Review: Woman at Exhibition by E. Lily Yu

This article first appeared on the Eruditorum Press site on 27 September 2015.

Fittingly enough for a story hung up on the visual arts, the appeal of ‘Woman at Exhibition’ is difficult to put into words.

For one thing, the plot overview sounds a little bit twee and hipsterish; a young woman has a not-quite-argument with her fiancée, and goes to an art exhibition to get away from it. She’s struck by the beauty of one painting in particular, and in a Hannibalistic version of Stendhal syndrome, starts to eat it. From there things manage to get even stranger, as our protagonist is shown a series of other paintings, and the story becomes a kind of Angela Carter short crossed with an art catalogue. It’s an intriguing idea, but it doesn’t quite explain what makes this story so special.

Part of it is that Yu’s prose is simply gorgeous. Yu has a knack for memorable phrases and the self-awareness to know when to undercut her more flowery passages with moments of domesticity, such as the wonderful moment early on: “Luke slung his saxophone over his shoulder and kissed her. The touch of his mouth sent sparks crackling and snapping through her, bright as magnesium, and she softened into him. The saxophone bumped against her hips.”

Yu manages to vividly characterise her story’s main players in the small amount of text she has to work with, and displays a good ear for dialogue. But what really makes this story stick in the mind is the anger which animates it. As the title suggests, this is a story about how women are treated in the world of art, and Yu makes a number of barbed comments about the male gaze and female interiority in the visual arts, giving the whole thing an air of eloquent and righteous anger under the elaborate, painterly surface.

By turns sweet, funny, dark and bitter, ‘Woman at Exhibition’ is a beautiful thing, and more than deserving of consideration at this year’s Hugo Awards. Its mesmerising power and bomb-throwing rage make it the equal of any story I have read this year, science fiction or otherwise. It’s well worth checking out, so long as you don’t get peckish. This is a story that bites back.