Reviewed by Layla Khoury-Hanold
S.L. Wisenberg is a writer’s writer, and I mean that in the same way a comedian might say “she’s a comic’s comic,” complimenting someone they admire for their skillfully honed craft.
In her latest book, The Wandering Womb: Essays in Search of Home (University of Massachusetts Press; March 2023), Wisenberg explores identity and what it means to be a woman (and more specifically, a Jewish woman), through the lens of the body, menstruation, family and historical record, religion, and personal experience. The book is at turns funny, dark, and heartbreaking, bound together with beautiful, thought-provoking writing that makes for a richly nuanced collection of essays.
The opening essay, “Female Protection,” sets the tone and intention for the book (it also has a supremely satisfying ending) and introduces the reader to Wisenberg’s voice. From the outset, the reader knows that they’re in the hands of a master storyteller and that Wisenberg is someone they’d like to spend time with. Throughout the book, there are many lines that beg to be re-read, the kind that simultaneously make writing seem both effortless and so advanced that it inspires other writers to want to write better.
In the essay “Separate Vacations,” Wisenberg writes, “But the writing is part of the equation; as much as it catalogs the vicissitudes of my distress, it pulls my feelings from me, or pulls me toward them, illuminates my internal train ride through unknown landscapes.” In “The Land of Allergens,” she writes, “Yesterday the sky hung white, as flat as slate, and each breath was a deep bruise.” Sometimes, the lines that stop a reader in their tracks are the ones that convey depth with an economy of words, like in “Younger Men, Older Men,: when Wisenberg writes of young men and young love, “Giddy and greedy, we drink the word love like chilled champagne,” or in “The Jew in the Body,” when she writes, “Sadness walks through my bones.”
The book is structured with pacing in mind; lengthier, more complex essays are often followed by shorter essays, many of which lean on Wisenberg’s deft touch with original humor to bring levity to the page and lighten the reader’s load. For example, in “Separate Vacations,” Wisenberg writes, “I thought about the futility of hiking (actually felt before thinking, do you understand?); it’s really just outdoor window shopping, trees instead of shirts.”
Some of the longer, more in-depth essays that weave together archival records, history, and cultural criticism can be harder to follow, land on a takeaway and may require more than one reading. For example, the second essay, “The Wandering Womb,” weaves seemingly disparate influences as the experience of being Jewish, Plato, Surrealism, and a film on the largest prison in India, but I appreciated that it challenged me to hold different threads of possibility in my mind as to where the author was going with the essay. In the case of the essay “Grandmother Russia/Selma,” the author braids historic and systemic trauma—slavery, racism, antisemitism, intergenerational family trauma—and how it has informed her personal history; it challenges the reader to imagine their own familial roots and to honor the ties that bind us to the past and haunt our present.
The Wandering Womb: Essays in Search of Home will appeal to fans of essay collections and literary memoirs, feminists, Jewish women, and readers who enjoy laughing out loud as much as engaging in existential discourse about death, identity, and family.
Layla Khoury-Hanold is a freelance journalist who has written for Food52, Food Network, and the Chicago Tribune, among others. She is currently working on her debut memoir. Follow her on Instagram @words_with_layla or on Twitter @words_withlayla.