Nicola Griffith, Slow River (1995)

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In a final, desperate bid for survival, Frances Lorien Van de Oest, heiress to a vast fortune, escapes from her kidnappers and finds herself thrust, naked and bleeding, onto the cold dark streets of an unknown city. There, she is picked up by a charismatic thief named Spanner and reborn as Lore, someone for whom identity has become a fractured, shifting, untrustworthy thing.

Slow River unfolds gradually. The opening narrative, told by Lore in the first person, is set three years after the kidnap, and a few months after her breakup with Spanner. The second narrative tells the story of life with Spanner, beginning immediately after Lore escapes from the kidnappers. The third follows her upbringing, at two year intervals, from the age of five until she is abducted. This triple narrative structure creates a powerful sense of momentum. Lore’s stories move forward in parallel towards a point of convergence, both in terms of time and self.

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Elizabeth A. Lynn, The Woman Who Loved The Moon and Other Stories (1981)

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Elizabeth A. Lynn is not a prolific writer. She’s published a handful of highly regarded books over the last thirty years, including a World Fantasy Award-winning trilogy and two science fiction novels. I’ve been looking forward to reading her work partly because she’s known as one of the first science fiction and fantasy writers to offer positive representations of lesbian, gay and bisexual characters. The famous chain of gay bookstores, ‘A Different Light’, was named after her first novel. The Woman Who Loved The Moon and Other Stories is her only complete collection and includes works published between 1977 and 1980. Each story is accompanied by a helpful authorial introduction describing its genesis.

Overall, I’m very impressed. Lynn’s writing is fluid and lyrical. She has that wonderful ability to engage your attention in the opening paragraph and, before you know it, draw you into the worlds she creates. Her stories are often unsettling, occasionally terrifying, and when I consider the collection as a whole, I do notice a recurring concern with death, grief and loss. But if death features heavily in her work, Lynn also places high value on love, friendship and moments of connection between people.

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Emma Donoghue, Landing (2007)

Emma Donoghue is a lesbian writer with an impressive range.  She’s produced literary history, plays and short stories, as well as her novels which cross the genres of historical fiction, contemporary realism and, in the case of Landing, light romance.

In a chance meeting, Sile, a glamorous, 39 year-old, Irish-Indian flight attendant falls for Jude, a twenty-five year old Canadian Quaker from the tiny town of Ireland in Ontario. The book follows the progress of their relationship over the course of a year and, though light in tone, Donoghue includes just enough serious issues to give the story an edge.

As this review notes, Jude and Sile have to deal with generational, economic, cultural and spiritual differences.  Landing also uses the theme of the long-distance relationship to explore broader questions around the ways in which technological developments have created new possibilities, but also new problems, for relationships. What should a relationship be based on? How much should you be prepared to give up for a relationship? What are the limits of compromise?

Although Sile is probably the more vivid character, I felt that Donoghue had slightly more sympathy with Jude’s simple lifestyle, an impression created most strongly by the representation of Sile’s atrocious yuppie friends. But both women have to change if their relationship is to succeed and, all in all, it’s a good story about taking risks, compromise and personal growth.

If I have any criticism, it’s that Donoghue creates a narrative problem for herself by having Sile in a long-term relationship when she meets Jude. This creates conflict, which is good for fiction, but Donoghue doesn’t seem to want to risk the reader losing sympathy with Sile, which leads her to create a rather unbelievable relationship and the girlfriend quickly turns into a cardboard cut-out nasty lesbian ex.

Landing resonated with me personally because my partner (who also reviewed Landing here) and I met in inconvenient circumstances and did long-distance between the UK and the States for two years, so we had to deal with a lot of similar issues.   I especially enjoyed the emails which reminded me so much of the early days of our relationship when we were very dependent on email – the agonising over sending the message, the excitement of getting a reply, the misunderstandings caused by language differences and the inevitable problems that occur when trying to communicate without the use of voice and body language (thank goodness for emoticons). Donoghue herself emigrated from Ireland to Canada to be with her partner, so I suspect a lot of the emotions attached to that experience went into the writing of Landing.

This is a good holiday read (it was exactly what I needed while having a hard time in the spring).  It’s definitely one for fans of lesbian romance, and I’d say worth a look even if  (like me) you don’t usually enjoy the genre.

This week’s culture round-up

From Feminist SF Blog, the first of a series in honour of Joanna Russ who died recently Remembering Joanna Russ – Part 1 I tried to read The Female Man last year and just couldn’t get on with it, but may give it another go sometime.  The Adventures of Alyx is on my bookshelf and I’m looking forward to that one.

Awful Library Books presents us with some awful science fiction.

Sparky explains why writers should think carefully about the tropes they use when representing marginalised people: Tropes and the Marginalised.

But then again, Maud Newton reminds us that perhaps being a writer isn’t always such a great idea.

The ultimate Alfred Hitchcock Cookbook.

From Final Girl, a review of the slasher movie Cold Prey.  I am wondering where I can find someone to watch this with me.

The next in Jess McCabe’s series about female detectives is about spinster detectives.  I recommend the 1980s BBC adaptations of the Miss Marple books starring Joan Hickson.

Andy does a round-up of the lesbian books she’s been reading recently.  Check out the great cover on the Lesbian Love Stories.

And to finish off, here’s Susan Sontag in a Bear Suit

The Lesbian Movie Marathon, The Nightwatch

Sarah Waters’s novel, The Nightwatch, interests me partly because I had two lesbian great-aunts, one of whom (like the character of Kay), drove ambulances during World War II, and the other was in the forces and did something to do with anti-aircraft guns.

Andy’s already written a post about the recent BBC adaptation which I’ll try not to replicate too much here, but I agree with her points that, while it didn’t suck and I certainly didn’t hate it, overall, it also left me feeling disappointed.

Along with Fingersmith I think this is the most respectful of the adaptations of Waters’s work so far,  definitely the best produced and acted that we’ve seen.   I felt that the novel was being taken seriously and the actors were bringing everything they could to the text.  I thought the performances of Anna Wilson-Jones as Julia particularly good as she only had a few scenes, and also Harry Treadway as Duncan, who made his character more interesting to me than the Duncan in the book.

I do think that making it into such a short film meant that we were treated to much simplified versions of the book’s highly complex characters, with the result that Kay was too nice and good, Helen too wide-eyed and innocent, Julia a bit too predatory, and Viv’s boyfriend too obviously a creep from the beginning.   Also, what happened to the vaguely sinister Mr Mundy who seemed to have turned into the grandfather from the Werther’s Original adverts?

However, appreciating the limitations of time and money, I can live with all of that; my more serious problem with this adaptation lies in the representation of gender and lesbian sexuality, particularly in the representation of butch identity.  In this respect, what I think the adaptation shows is that while we’ve reached the stage of being able to represent lesbians, we still struggle with representing certain kinds of lesbian identity and experience.

Like Andy, I was surprised by the casting of Anna Maxwell Martin as Kay.  Don’t get me wrong, I think she’s a good actress (excellent as Esther in Bleak House), but personally I found her deeply unconvincing as an aristocratic, butch lesbian.

When I see Kay in my mind, I see someone like Valentine Ackland or Radcliffle Hall.

Ideally I see her character being her played by someone like a young Vanessa Redgrave or Tilda Swinton (yes, I know they could never afford Tilda Swinton), but someone who can really occupy space in a convincingly butch way.  I imagine Kay as tall and broad-shouldered, tough, sexually confident, even aggressive, but Maxwell Martin is so tiny and delicate-looking, and there’s something self-effacing about the way she occupies space that just doesn’t feel right to me.  I can’t imagine her having rough, drunken sex with a stranger in an alleyway as Kay does in the novel.  She also came across as too good and nice; Kay is one of the most interesting characters in The Nightwatch and certainly has a heroic side, but I wouldn’t call her “nice”.  The representation was strange in several ways.  Why did the adaptation’s Kay cut off her hair because she was upset about seeing a family killed in the bombing?  This doesn”t happen in the novel where I doubt Kay would ever have had long hair (I expect she would have had an Eton crop).  As Andy says, it makes some link between butchness and tragedy that isn’t in the novel.  It’s also interesting that the adaptation has Kay breaking down and crying and being comforted by Helen, while in the same part of the book we have her drinking all night – I think Kay is the kind of butch who, even if she did cry, wouldn’t have let anyone else see her doing it.  Really the problem here is that the writers didn’t seem to appreciate that a butch lesbian in this period would have been following a certain code of behaviour.  I also felt that the character was desexualised.  Did anyone find this film sexy from a lesbian perspective? I was annoyed that the most explicit sex scene was between a heterosexual couple in a film in which the majority of the characters are lesbians.

Perhaps most telling, though, was the total erasure of the other butch character, Mickey, who is Kay’s best friend in the book, and her replacement with a feminine, heterosexual character in the adaptation.  Possibly they didn’t want to represent another butch character, but I think it’s more likely that the writers simply didn’t see the importance of Mickey, just as they don’t seem to see the significance of butchness.  Mickey is important, not least becasue she’s a happy butch.  Is it possible to represent a happy butch lesbian?

The leeriness aound butchness has plagued other Waters adaptations, such as Tipping the Velvet which had a lot more sex, but cast a woman who couldn’t pass as male in a story in which the whole plot turns on us believing that the character can pass as male.  Affinity was more offensive, turning the butch working-class character of Viggers into a predatory older woman and not at all understanding that the plot turned on the class differences and invisibility of the butch – the point is that no one can see Viggers for what she really is.

It makes me wonder when we will see a really convincing and sexy representation of butchness in mainstream television (haven’t seen Lip Service so don’t know how that was).

The adaptation did make me want to re-read The Nightwatch again though, so you may be hearing more about it in the not to distant future.

Sarah Schulman, Rat Bohemia (1995)

Rat Bohemia has a special place in my heart as the first lesbian novel that I read, excepting The Color Purple, which is more of a novel with lesbian themes than a lesbian novel per se.  I have no idea where I laid my hands on my copy because Schulman is not at all well known in the UK.  I think she’s one of our best lesbian writers, but the topics she explores don’t make for popularity.  Rat Bohemia sets out to make connections between the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and the heterosexual family.

The novel is definitely postmodern, but written in an accessible style. Schulman never overwrites and her deceptively simple, clear prose masks a complex, carefully thought out narrative structure.

Rat Bohemia is divided into four parts, each narrated by a different character. Like most of Schulman’s work, it’s set in a run-down, gothic New York.  And like much traditional Gothic fiction, the text is a patchwork of interlinked voices telling the story from different perspectives.  The first narrator, Rita Mae Weems, is a Jewish lesbian in her early thirties, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, she works for Pest Control and is obsessed with New York’s rat problem.  Rita has never got over being thrown out of home at the age of 16 when her father caught her in bed with a girl called Claudia.  The second part is narrated by David, a gay Jewish writer and activist living with AIDS who is desperate for some acknowledgement and love from the family members who he feels are trying to kill him.  The third section is narrated by Rita’s best friend, Killer, a bohemian career plant-waterer who is involved in a passionate affair with the enigmatic Troy Ruby.  Along the way, there are other voices: Rita’s Cuban lover, Lourdes, successful closeted lesbian writer, Muriel Kay Starr, and David’s upper-middle class lawyer father.

Rat Bohemia is an angry novel about devastation, the devastation wrought not only by the AIDS crisis, but by society’s lack of adequate response to that crisis. Schulman locates the source of that deadly neglect in the family, daring to make connections between the Holocaust and American society’s ignoring, even cheering on, of the suffering and death of thousands of gay men in the 1980s.  The novel is a no holds barred critique of the family and its contribution to the suffering of queer people, and  Schulman is totally uncompromising in her representation of the way heterosexual families rationalise their cruelties to their queer members.

I remember when I first read it being struck by her point that heterosexual kids usually get some kind of parental cheerleading when they start to date, something that queer kids have to do without.  She doesn’t let heterosexual siblings off the hook, pointing out the ways they can take advantage of the situation.  This is a problem in the structure of the nuclear family, in which love is treated like booty to be parcelled out to members. She has no gratitude whatsoever for scraps of tolerance and ends the novel with the statement that every child deserves someone to be on their side and defend them.

There isn’t much light in this novel, though Schulman keeps it from being depressing with her warm, blackly humorous tone and her faith in friendship.  The only hope for us, she seems to say, is to be found in love and community between queer people.

This is still a radical book and I think I found it all the more powerful on re-reading.