A review of We Arrive Uninvited by Jen Knox

Reviewed by Ashley Holloway 

We Arrive Uninvited
by Jen Knox
Steel Toe Books
Prose Award Winner 2021
ISBN-13: 978-1949540383, March 2023, $25.60 CAD, 226 pages

What is the definition of a “strong female character”? A character who is physically strong and effective at wielding a multitude of weapons as she gracefully takes down the evil villain? Or is she more of a subtle badass like Elle Woods in Legally Blonde? Jen Knox’s We Arrive Uninvited flawlessly demonstrates how strong female protagonists can be found in the everyday. The author effectively balances an almost all-female cast of characters without falling prey to literary cliches or devolving into a feminist manifesto. In this intimate book centered around different ways of seeing and knowing, Knox takes on the challenge of trying to decipher the messy relationships that women have with each other and does so seamlessly while also highlighting the challenges of female agency in America over the past century. We Arrive Uninvited is like the movie Practical Magic meets Steel Magnolias only without all the Hollywood nonsense. And set in Cleveland, Ohio. 

Tracing the stories of four generations of women, We Arrive Uninvited both highlights and acknowledges the complicated nature of having a powerful mother in all its definitions of power whilst drawing attention to how choice shapes the lives of women, past and present. With its “witchy” theme, Knox alternates the narrator with each chapter, effectively creating different layers to the story, which are carefully nested together like matryoshka. Despite being somewhat fantastical with its goddess and mystical undertones, Knox creates a believable story that simply demonstrates the harnessing of the earth’s natural powers, sans magic wands. 

Appealing to a broad audience, this book places emphasis on the universal need for belonging and normalcy infused with an ethereal undertone that reminds us of the power of Mother Nature, and the tenuous connection between the living and the dead and everything in-between. The balanced use of subtext and metaphor make this an easy, light read that poses the ever-elusive question of “what is normal, anyways?” and “why does this matter?” Ever present throughout the book is an element of vulnerability that is carefully threaded into the storyline, helping to establish the emotional weight that stems from these different ways of knowing and seeing. In addition, We Arrive Uninvited serves to create awareness on the stigma associated with mental illness, and how this can be misunderstood, often with grave consequences. 

A good fiction author can establish a relationship with the reader, leaving the reader feeling as though the author is sharing a personal story with them and them alone. We Arrive Uninvited is a book written by a writer who knows how to craft a fine story. The final few chapters gain momentum, leaving the reader feeling slightly rushed and breathless. However, this acceleration parallels the trajectory of the story, thus aligning well with its evolving mood and shape. It is easy to see why this book won the Steel Toe Books Prose Award Winner in 2021. This book has warmth, depth, balance, and texture needed for stories featuring powerful women, magical or otherwise, leaving the reader with the final question of “what do you believe?”

Review first published at Reckon Review: https://reckonreview.com/magic-madness-meaning/

About the reviewer: Residing in Mohkinstsis, Ashley Holloway teaches healthcare leadership at Bow Valley College in Calgary, AB. She is a nurse with a Master of Public Health, a graduate diploma in Global Leadership, with further studies in intercultural communication and international development. Ashley’s work has appeared in the Calgary Public Library Short Story DispenserThe Nashwaak ReviewThe Globe and Mail, Magna Publications, The Prairie JournalCARE MagazineFlash Fiction Magazine, Canadian Dimensions, with regular contributions to Lead Read Today; forthcoming publications include Flash Fiction Magazine (TBD), and WELL READ Magazine (March 2023). Ashley has co-authored two books (Create & Curate: 500 Ideas for Artists & Writers, 2023; and How (Not) to Lead, 2023) and reads manuscripts, writes book reviews, and provides editorial feedback for Unleash Press. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.