If you search the web for books about violent women, you are instead met with countless novels about violence against women. There are hundreds more books about murdered and abused women than there are about women who murder and abuse. But I’m tired of reading about how women are violated, traumatized, and killed. I want to read about dark, dangerous, and powerful women. Women who do to the world what the world does to them. After all, women have plenty of reasons to become violent.
Early on in my debut novel, the narrator remarks that “I knew, I’d always known, that war was a woman’s thing.” This is a lesson that she has learned from her mother, who brings her daughters to see the Irish border but leaves her sons at home. It is a lesson that she has learned from watching the Troubles unfold around her: women fighting in the guerilla war beside men. Women masterminding attacks; women luring soldiers to isolated areas to sabotage them or ply them for information.
I always knew that the narrator of my novel, Trouble the Living, would commit an act of violence. But, as I wrote and edited, her feelings about this action changed. What began as an act of revenge—something she did because she felt she had no other choice—became something murkier, a violence from which she derives a twisted pleasure: “The feeling in my chest was hot and thick, raw milk straight from the udder, a sweltering desire.” It is this lust for violence that fascinates me; I think that many women feel it, and yet we very rarely see it represented.
So, here are 7 books about women committing acts of violence. Books in which women have twisted desires or commit acts of vengeance in the name of some greater cause. These are books that flip the paradigm we’ve learned—bad man, battered woman—on its head, and show women as devastatingly powerful and wonderfully, frighteningly violent.
The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani
We start Leila Slimani’s slim novel with the knowledge that two young children have been violently murdered by their nanny. We then flash backwards in time, first to a French couple’s search for someone to watch their children—“No illegal immigrants,” the husband says, “No veils and no smokers” —and then through the strange, complex relationship that forms between them and the woman they eventually hire. Exploring class, race, culture, and gender, Slimani unfolds a dark and disturbing story about how we rely on each other, the toll that domestic work takes, and what it means to raise a child that is not your own. Told in elegant, unemotional prose, the novel culminates in an act of violence that is particularly female—an act that is triggered by the pressures that the world has put on women in general and one woman in particular.
Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe
A New York Times bestseller, Say Nothing is a vivid history of the Provisional IRA in the 1970s in the north of Ireland, focusing especially on the disappearance of a Catholic woman, believed to be an informant. But the most intriguing part of the book is the story of Dolorous and Marian Price, IRA members and sisters who committed notorious acts of violence throughout the late ‘60s and ‘70s. The Price sisters were imprisoned for a bombing in London in 1973 and subsequently went on hunger strike, surviving only because they were force-fed by the British. Both women were traumatized by the torture they underwent, and later in life would reflect on their actions in different ways. It’s worth noting that Say Nothing has been criticized for condemning the violence of the IRA without examining the violence perpetrated by the loyalist volunteer groups during the same time period. But, if read alongside other texts, the book richly dramatizes the amazing story of the Price sisters and the violence they committed in the name of what they believed in.
Females by Andrea Long Chu
The thesis of Andrea Long Chu’s thin, provocative book is “everyone is female, and everyone hates it.” Long Chu defines “femaleness” as an inversion of self, a prioritization of other over self, and a negation of our own desires. In this way, she argues, we are all female; and it is a state we all despise. Of course, in a world where everyone is female, “all rapists are female…females masterminded the Atlantic slave trade.” But female violence is explored in more depth than just these generalized statements; braided into her gender theory—and brief discussions of her own transition—Long Chu explores the story of Valerie Solanas, a playwright and infamous misandrist, who shot Andy Warhol after a long vendetta against the artist. This act of violence—revenge for not helping her achieve success—is also an enactment of Solanas’ philosophy, expressed in her provocative work, the SCUM Manifesto (SCUM stands for “the Society for Cutting Up Men”). Females is a clever, funny and deeply probing exploration of the wickedness and vindictiveness of women and the expansiveness of gender.
My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
Set in sprawling, sweltering Lagos, My Sister the Serial Killer tells the story of two sisters: Ayoola, a beautiful fashion designer, and Korede, a nurse. Ayoola is—you guessed it!—a serial killer. Or, at least, she has a habit of killing her boyfriends. Against her will, Korede has again and again been put in charge of the post-murder cleanup, rescuing Ayoola from her own messes. After yet another murder, Korede begins to wonder why she is helping her sister and why Ayoola is killing her boyfriends in the first place. Maybe, we learn, it has something to do with the sisters’ shared trauma. Maybe Ayoola just needs the power rush. Maybe all the men are violent, as she claims and Korede doubts. Ultimately, the novel playfully suggests that killing—and getting away with it—might really be a woman’s game.
Medea by Euripides
The oldest title on this list, Medea is a tragic play by Ancient Greek writer Euripides. Written in 431 BC, Medea tells the story of a wife who, when her husband leaves her for a princess, exacts revenge by murdering his new wife and her own two sons. The play—though brutal—is often read in a feminist context, with Medea as a heroine desperate to take control of her life. In the final moments of the work, Medea ends her speech to a distraught Jason by saying, “My claws have gripped thine heart, and all things shine.” The beautiful poetry of this play, alongside a devastating act of violence, is gripping. And the idea that women must exert control in the only ways they are allowed—here, by attacking their own children—is insightful and provocative.
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk
It’s hard to fully express the ingenuity of Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead without spoiling anything. The novel follows an elderly woman living alone in a rural Polish town and a string of strange murders. Filled with allusions to Blake (like the title), tongue-in-cheek astrological interpretations, and a deep love for animals—especially the narrator’s dog—the book would be delightful even without the final, delicious twist. Ultimately, this is a book about how we treat each other and what we each deserve. And, of course, it’s a book about what women are capable of, how they exert autonomy, how they are seen by their neighbors, and what darkness lives inside them.
The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste
A beautifully crafted novel about Mussolini’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia, The Shadow King was longlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize. In it, Mengiste tells the story of violence, both personal and political, and what it means to withstand it. The novel mostly centers on Hirut, the maid to an officer in Haile Selassie’s army, and Aster, the officer’s wife and Hirut’s abusive employer. Over the course of the war, Hirut devises an ingenious plan to fool the Italian army; meanwhile, the women, led by Aster, become an essential force in fighting off the would-be colonizers. The Shadow King is about the wars women fight across multiple arenas, and how their fractured, traumatized experiences can become sites of power. The women soldiers in The Shadow King are a fierce force to be reckoned with, and the way they see the world because of their gender is what ultimately enables them to fight so successfully.