Amy Lee Lillard’s Exile in Guyville

The Not-So Alternate Realities of Amy Lee Lillard’s Exile in Guyville: A Review by Corey McQueen

Amy Lee Lillard is the author of numerous books, including A Grotesque Animal (University of Iowa), Dig Me Out (Atelier26 Books), and the subject of this review, Exile in Guyville, which is set to release from BOA Editions on May 21st. Her work has been featured in various publications, including this one, and has garnered multiple accolades. Alongside her written work, Lillard is the co-creator of Broads and Books Productions, which hosts several podcasts, publications, and presses. My expectations were undoubtedly high for her upcoming collection, and Exile didn’t disappoint. 

Since publishing her debut in late 2021, Lillard’s talent has earned the attention of everyday readers and critics alike. Exile not only displays the talent for which the writer has been recognized, but screams it from the rooftops. The book is an anthology that explores alternate realities, some of which are more familiar than others, but it finds its center in women who find themselves pushed to the brink, on the precipice of ruin, and learning to accept harsh (not-so-alternate) realities. Every story, to echo the back-of-the-book copy is “both deeply foreign and intimately familiar.” In this way, Lillard’s fiction occupies a limbo space between what is and what could be. 

Many of the women in the stories are presented with gut-wrenching choices: Do they risk their life, status, or health to challenge their circumstances, or do they play along and attempt to take advantage of an environment capable of constructing an obstacle at every turn? The decisions Lillard’s protagonists make and the actions they take will leave the reader impressed, gutted, and entertained by equal turns. The protagonists featured in Exile are incredibly nuanced; So much so that you would be hard-pressed to find comparable nuance in many full chapter books, let alone another collection of short stories.

On top of the inherent entertainment value I got out of reading Exile, the book is also exceedingly re-readable. Each story exists within its own fully realized world; the challenge, however, is in recognizing that most development isn’t explicitly on the page. With every story, I found myself picturing a larger context. The descriptions of war-torn wastelands and the melted plastic texture present on the skin of nuclear war victims, for example, portend dire conditions here on Earth. The heart-wrenching and graphic details make it all the more real and ominous. 

The lengths characters are willing to go to find their own way, even if it’s not necessarily a way out, begin to feel personal to the reader via Lillard’s revelatory prose. “Typical Girls,” in particular, resonated with me due to the conversation it invites regarding the illegal termination of pregnancy and the story’s novel idea of a cash bonus per birth. What once may have read as simply frightening and inconceivable, now seems scarily preferable to the reality of many states’ criminalized abortions. I found each sentence and each word to be ripe with dystopian allusion that feels all too plausible in today’s world

While it might be easy for some critics to discount some of the stories in the collection as mere trauma-writing, Exile depicts the unfortunate reality of so many of the lived experiences Lillard’s stories attempt to reveal. While you’ll find no avoidance of discomfort in the writing, Lillard does create a thin veil of fantasy or science fiction that affords the reader distance between the work and reality. Exile somehow deftly manages to provoke thought without completely eliminating the potential for peace and possibility.

The book implicitly calls forth criticism regarding multiple relevant issues, including the pervasive nature of the male gaze; the fantasies held by each gender and the circumstances that women live under all seem absurd until you realize just how awfully close the fiction hits to home. These stories explore concepts such as trans-humanism stripping us of individuality—including the little voice that makes us second-guess or feel bad about our bodies—and the way the media employs sensationalism and skewed narratives to placate us. 

The book also posits the preference of death as the final act of autonomy rather than the continuance of a subjugated existence; Exile includes a touching exploration of the discovery of sexuality. In “Blackbird,” a story which effectively exhausts and guts the meaning of the word bittersweet, Lillard criticizes the concept of States’ Rights. 

Exile In Guyville is not only a triumph within Lillard’s catalog, but it's also some of the best work I’ve read in years. It tactfully balances its gut-wrenching traumatic narratives and deeply nuanced characters on the thin line between eventual reality and speculative fiction. At every turn, Lillard provoked constructive thought and continuously challenged me to wrangle with the dark nature of the stories while somehow also keeping things infinitely entertaining.

You can find Exile in Guyville in stores and on bookshelves May 21st, 2024, at Carmichael's Books here in Louisville, or wherever else you buy books. 

COREY MCQUEEN is a senior editor of Miracle Monocle.