The Novels of Joseph Hansen

Michael Nava has published a thoughtful article in LARB about the author Joseph Hansen Gay Noir Pioneer

I recommend reading the Dave Brandsetter mystery novels if you can get your hands on them. They feature an openly gay detective and offer a fascinating window onto the lives of gay men and, to some extent, lesbians in the 1960s and 70s. Hansen also has a really interesting writing style.

Candas Jane Dorsey, Machine Sex and Other Stories (1988)

The stories in Candas Jane Dorsey’s collection Machine Sex are melancholy and evocative. They are concerned with themes of alienation, displacement, transition and loss, but also with the importance of making connections and the possibilities that may be played out within the limits of our human lives.

The two linked stories, ‘The Prairie Warriors’ and ‘War and Rumours of War’, are set during a moment of transition at the end of old relationships and the beginning of new ones.  As part of a long tradition, a small community gives a young girl to a separatist society of female warriors.  The story is told from the perspectives of the girl and the two women who are sent to collect her. Traumatised, addicted to drugs, hostile and desperately needy, the girl finds herself faced with an entirely new set of values and ways of relating. She must decide whether to let go of her old life and take the risk of connecting with her new companions.  The story features one of the best representations of a disturbed teenager that I’ve ever come across and probably draws on Dorsey’s own life experience as a social worker.  Dorsey also identifies as a queer writer and sexuality is well-handled in her stories.  I especially liked the way ‘Prairie Warriors’ contrasts the sexually abusive patriarchal world of the town with the dynamics of the warrior society in which sexuality is not commodified.

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Judy Grahn, ‘Poem’

I’m not a girl
I’m a hatchet
I’m not a hole
I’m a whole mountain
I’m not a fool
I’m a survivor
I’m not a pearl
I’m the Atlantic Ocean
I’m not a good lay
I’m a straight razor
look at me as if you had never seen a woman before
I have red, red hands and much bitterness

– Judy Grahn from Edward the Dyke and Other Poems

Emma Donoghue, Life Mask (2004)

Life Mask is set in the world of late eighteenth-century British high society.  This period saw economic crises, impending war, and the threat of revolution, but also an increasingly educated population and more social mobility.  A few women were beginning to access careers, especially in literature and the arts, but they still lived in a world in which reputation was everything and entering public life remained extremely risky.

Following the early death of her boorish husband, aristocratic Anne Damer has been able to enjoy a relatively independent life and has made a name for herself as a sculptor.  Eliza Farren, meanwhile, has risen from her working-class origins to become a successful actress on the London stage, one of the celebrities of the period. The lives of these two women are linked by their relationships with a powerful man, Edward Smith-Stanley , twelfth Earl of Derby, an old friend of Anne’s and suitor to Eliza. Despite the difference in their social positions, Anne and Eliza become close friends, but when ugly rumours about the nature of Anne’s sexual preferences begin to surface, they threaten to bring scandal and ruin down upon all their heads.

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Daphne Du Maurier, Jamaica Inn (1936)

What strikes me most about Jamaica Inn is just how much Daphne Du Maurier’s writing improved in the novels that followed this romantic thriller. If she’d written nothing else, I suspect she’d have fallen into obscurity along with a lot of other popular women writers of her day.  I read Jamaica Inn at the same time as I was reading a collection of her late stories from the 1970s and while I enjoyed both books, if it wasn’t for the same name on the cover, I probably wouldn’t have recognised them as works by the same author. But, having said all of that, Jamaica Inn does point the way towards Du Maurier’s later works.

The novel is set in Cornwall in the 1820s. Our orphaned heroine, Mary Yellen, goes to live with her mother’s sister Patience at the isolated Jamaica Inn. To her alarm, she finds her aunt a shadow of her former self, utterly dominated by her brutal husband, Joss Merlyn.  Worse is to come when Mary realises there are wicked doings afoot at the Inn, the least of which is smuggling. Determined to discover the truth and get her aunt away from Jamaica Inn, Mary finds herself locked in a dangerous battle of wills with her uncle. Matters are further complicated when she meets two other men, Joss’s devilishly attractive younger brother and the strange, elusive Vicar of Altarnun. Who can Mary trust to help her in her predicament?

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