Queer Classics: The Persian Boy by Mary Renault

the-persian-boy-coverSecond in Renault’s Alexander the Great trilogy, The Persian Boy follows the story of Bagoas, the Persian eunuch who Alexander falls in love with, and is entirely from his point of view, in first person, unlike the other two books in the trilogy.

Oh, my heart. I loved this book. The detail, as Bagoas follows Alexander’s campaigns across the world, is breathtaking. I could have stayed in this world forever. It’s such a huge story, and Bagoas can only tell a small part of it, but I like that his perspective is limited in that way. It makes the story much more personal.

I also loved the main character. It’s quite unusual to have a male lead who is feminine and submissive, and that makes a nice change, especially given the subject matter of the story. It’s such an inspired choice by Renault. Whilst, in the first book, Alexander’s relationship with Hephaestion seems to draw strength from the fact Alexander can be his relaxed, private self around Hephaestion, his relationship with Bagoas seems to allow him an outlet for his role as a divine hero, someone who is admired, as well as for his love of Persia. I think Renault shows how the two relationships complement each other, and Bagoas comes to accept that, despite his jealousy of Hephaestion. The relationship also highlights the racial tensions that Alexander faces from his own people, as he embraces the culture of a foreign land.

I hoped, all along, that Bagoas and Hephaestion might come to more of an overt understanding, but they do come to understand each other, in a way that is left unspoken. This is one of the ways that Renault captures the morality and behaviour of the time. In a modern book, the two would have inevitably had a heart to heart, but given the differences in the roles and statuses, and Bagoas’ own conservatism, it makes sense that they don’t.

My only major criticism is that this book doesn’t treat women particularly well, in the small space they’re given. To an extent, it reflects the times, but I think there’s also some prejudice on Renault’s part. Queen Sisygambis, Queen Mother of Darius III, is the only female character who comes out with any real dignity or strength.

So, lovely flexible gender representation on one hand, and not on the other. If you can get past the female characters (as I say, they play a tiny part), it’s an amazing book. I guess it’s going to be a subjective thing whether that’s a deal breaker, or not. While I admire this book a lot, for all the reasons I’ve said, I may not go on to read any more of Renault after this trilogy, because that could get grating. These generally seem to be considered her best, anyway.

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Queer Book Club: Every Day by David Levithan

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Every Day is YA speculative fiction. Every morning, A wakes up to find themself in a different life, in a different body. They spend only a day in each person’s body and then move on. A has always moved from life to life, unable to make long-term relationships, careful not to leave a lasting mark on the lives they touch. But then they meet Rhiannon and fall in love and everything changes.

Every Day was a random second-hand bookshop find for me, although I read and enjoyed another Levithan book earlier in the year (you can find the review in the index), so I didn’t really know what to expect. I was pleasantly surprised. Each life that A touches was well realised, a brief glimpse into someone else’s reality. Levithan jumps from life to life with incredible skill.

A is effectively gender fluid, taking on the gender of the person whose life they’re borrowing. They’re also pansexual/bisexual. I’m not sure why there is a male pronoun used in the blurb as A is explicit about not identifying with one gender more than another in the story. Probably marketing department shenanigans. Gender is handled quite subtly for most of the story—for A it’s not that big a deal, but it’s clear in the way the A interacts with others that their varied experience has given them a lot of empathy for others. This particularly comes across in A’s concern for the way that Rhiannon is treated and devalued by her shitty boyfriend and there’s a nice feminist undercurrent to that. There’s a little more explicit gender reflection towards the end and in some ways I preferred the more subtle gender and identity stuff because the whole model for the story gives ample opportunity for that sort of reflection. The trans person that A hops into towards the end becomes a bit of a vehicle for this. I liked the diverse representation (and overall there is plenty), but found it a bit odd that this was the only character that got an enormous coming out back story.

The only thing that is missing for me in the story is a little more existential reflection from A. There is a little, but as the whole set-up is such a huge opportunity for that, I think more big questions could have been asked. There are some slightly bland generalisations about people being 98% similar and religions all being similar which I was fairly ambivalent about. I guess that the big questions of existence are just something Levithan didn’t want to go near, maybe so as not to alienate people, so the story keeps a tight focus on personal experience and identity. Having said that, I’m happy that no explanation is provided for A’s hopping, though I’m sure it would drive some readers nuts.

This is worth reading for the deft way Levithan realises the different lives that A glimpses. Each chapter is a day and there are so many different experiences brought to life in the story. For me that’s really the main attraction of the book.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

we-have-always-lived-in-the-castle-coverThe one name in horror I’m recommended more than any other is Shirley Jackson. This is reckoned to be her best novel, so I picked up a copy. Here’s a review of a gothic horror modern classic for Halloween.

Published in 1962, We have Always Lived in the Castle is the story of the two remaining Blackwood sisters, Constance and Mary Katherine (Merricat). They live with their Uncle Julian in the large old family home. The other members of the Blackwood family died six years ago, poisoned by arsenic in the sugar for dessert. Constance was acquitted of the murder, but the shadow of guilt hangs over her. Suspicious of Constance, and resentful their late parents high-handedness, the local villagers treat the Blackwood sisters with simmering hostility. Then cousin Charles comes to stay, sniffing around the family safe, and their fragile, reclusive world begins to crumble.

The narration, from Merricat’s point of view, captures the paranoid, agoraphobic mood perfectly. Merricat is obsessive and painfully isolated from the outside world. She collects objects and performs her own form of magic, placing little fetishes about the family estate to ward off the sense of doom she feels. But Merricat’s paranoia isn’t completely unjustified. The hostility the villagers feel towards the family is real, waiting all the time to bubble up, and Merricat is acutely aware of that. The relationship between the sisters is close to the point of possessive interdependency—Constance does for Merricat the ordinary functions that she can’t cope with, whereas Merricat protects her sister from the threat of the outside using a mixture of her peculiar magic and impulsive violence.

The whole story, focused almost entirely around the once grand Blackwood house, is tensely gothic. Underneath Merricat’s idiosyncratic view of the world lies the truth, tantalisingly close. A masterful study in isolation, possessive family attachments and social resentment.

Queer Book club: Beloved Poison by E.S. Thomson

beloved-poison-coverEspecially for Halloween, Beloved Poison is a grisly gothic mystery steeped in Victorian grime and macabre medical practices. The story follows Jem Flockhart, apothecary to St Saviour’s Infirmary, as she pieces together the mystery of six tiny coffins discovered in the Infirmary’s old chapel. The writer is an academic who specialises in the history of medicine, and that knowledge certainly comes through in the gory detail. The story is dark, bleak and atmospheric—if you’re looking for a story with plenty of gothic atmosphere, it won’t disappoint.

Jem is an excellent character—she lives her life as a man, a necessity her father insists upon, so that she can continue the family business. Her masculine build and a birth mark on her face make it easier for her to maintain this disguise. The role leaves Jem feeling separate from both the men and women who surround her, set apart by her secret, but she also recognises the freedom that her role gives her. She’s secretly in love with Eliza, the beautiful daughter of one of the infirmary’s surgeons, but she’s sure her love could never be returned. When a young architect, Will, is charged with clearing St Saviour’s graveyard in time for the old infirmary to be relocated, Jem finds real friendship for the first time. I like the way Thomson handles the gender roles—it feels aware and considered, and there is also some insightful observation of women’s roles at the time and how those limits impacted on individuals. While the characters aren’t always aware of the injustices that surround them, the story makes them clear.

The world of the story is a small one, claustrophobic, with a limited cast of characters. This adds to the atmosphere of the story, but left me wondering if Thomson  could really surprise me with the reveal. But in the end, I wasn’t disappointed by the conclusion of the mystery. Despite the gothic atmosphere, this story brings readers face to face with some grim social realities—the brutal practices of Victorian medicine, child poverty and the limited roles of women. Because of that unflinching approach to the bleak setting, it’s fitting that the story doesn’t have an entirely happy ending.

My only criticism was that the story occasionally drops retrospective hints about the mystery while otherwise not feeling like it’s written in a retrospective style. It’s a small thing, though, and it didn’t really detract from my enjoyment of and immersion in the story.

I should say an especial thank you to book blogger Hit or Miss Books for the recommendation.

Gothic/Horror Month Review: The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley

theloney-coverI’ve seen The Loney described as both gothic and folk horror, and also literary fiction, and all those labels fit. It’s the story of the Catholic Smith family and friends who take a pilgrimage from their church in London to a desolate patch of coast in Northern England. They stay at the Moorings, a rental house once home to a taxidermist. But it is the stretch of coast itself, The Loney, with its deadly tides, and the mysterious Thessaly, an abandoned cottage on the tidal island of Coldbarrow, which are really at the heart of the mystery. For years, the group visited the nearby shrine with their old priest, Father Wilfred. But on their previous visit, Father Wilfred mysteriously changed, and soon after died. This time a new priest accompanies them.

The story is narrated by one of the boys from the Smith family, now grown-up. His older brother, Hanny, was mute and had learning disabilities when they were young, and the narrator often acts as his protector. Every pilgrimage, the family hoped that Hanny would be cured, though the narrator knew what a strain that expectation placed on his brother. The story begins by looking back at that time, at the final pilgrimage, but from an adult point of view. In the present, we know that adult Hanny has somehow recovered from his condition, but not how, and we’re told of a baby discovered in a landslide at Coldbarrow. Though it takes the book to explain why, this event prompts the narrator to tell the story of the final pilgrimage to The Loney. The retrospective style builds the sense of mystery.

The Loney is fantastically atmospheric. The bleak and deadly landscape is a character in itself, and there’s a brooding sense of doom that overlays the whole story. From the start, there are hints of folk magic, of the dark history of the place, and of something not quite right about the locals. As the story grows, this becomes increasingly apparent, but it takes a long time to discover the truth. I can’t stress this enough, this book is a slow burn, so if you like a fast pace, this isn’t for you. However, I’m not the most patient person in the world, and the rich characterisation and atmosphere were enough food to keep me going.

Catholicism plays a big part alongside the folk magic, and there’s brutality there as well, mostly in the form of the older fire and brimstone priest and the legacy he left. There’s a lurking question that seems to hang over the story about the fate of those who are cast out by The Church. But it’s not a complete trashing of religion. The new priest is much more open minded, and genuinely caring, and the story also stresses the comfort and hope that faith provides, as well as some of the darker excesses of religion. There’s no one single message about belief, but a lot of ambiguity.

The biggest ambiguity comes at the end. I won’t give it away, but it’s an ending that stays with me, that haunts with its lingering questions. The narrator, who I don’t think is ever given a first name, plays his role of protector to the end.

People as Monsters, and Why This Savage Song Gets it Right.

I have a thing about human monsters, and people as monsters. It’s one of the themes that attracts me to vampire fiction. I’m all for unknowable alien horror, but sometimes, a more knowable monster, a more human one, can hit much closer to home. We don’t get off the hook so easily when the Other looks just like us.

I’ve been thinking a lot about different ways that a person could become monstrous, what choices they could make, whether the paths they choose will put them beyond redemption. The vampire sequel I’m editing at the moment sits pretty evenly between themes of monstrousness and identity. It’s a lucky coincidence that I picked up V.E. Schwab’s This Savage Song, which is all about monsters.

this-savage-song-coverIn This Savage Song, the sins of humans become embodied in the form of different kinds of monster, and these monsters roam the streets of V-City, terrorising its human inhabitants. The city is split between the Flynns on one side, who fight the monsters, and the Harkers on the other, who deal with the monsters, and extract protection money from the human inhabitants to keep the peace. But it’s not as simple as that. Some of the Flynns are monsters themselves, including one of the protagonists, August Flynn. The other main character is Kate Harker, the daughter of the ruthless racketeer. You can already see how the line between human and monster blurs.

The three Flynn children are all a particular rare kind of monster, Sunai, who are born out of great tragedy. They feed on souls, but only of those who have sinned. But they’re all very different. I found August’s older brother, Leo, the most interesting character—he’s wilfully given up his humanity to better fight the monsters of the city, though he still appears to be human. He pushes August to embrace his dark nature, but August resists Leo’s brutal lessons.

The setting is one of near lawlessness, and both Kate and August are forced to make decisions that may put them over the edge into monstrousness. It’s the way that the whole story is constantly teetering on that edge that works so well. Every action has a moral weight to it, and leaves its mark on the world and the character. I found this inflexible notion of consequences one of the most interesting things about the book.

Queer Book Club: Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

eileen-coverEileen is the story of a young woman set in the early 60s, in a small New England Town. It’s told retrospectively by Eileen when she’s much older, and there’s a wry humour to the retrospective viewpoint. Younger Eileen is trapped, living with her alcoholic father in their run down house, and working as a secretary in a juvenile prison. Nothing is rewarding about Eileen’s life, and she dreams of escape. She fantasises about Randy, one of the prison guards, and stalks him from afar, but really she’s quite alienated from her own desires, and her own body. Increasingly, we learn in snapshots from her childhood, that the whole of her life has been loveless and without affection. When a beautiful woman gets a job at the prison, Eileen’s desperate need for companionship transforms into a powerful crush.

This book caught my eye on the Man Booker shortlist. I’m slightly iffy as to whether it belongs in Queer Book Club (the main character isn’t explicitly queer), but the action hangs around Eileen’s crush on the beautiful new prison educator, Rebecca, so that’ll do I reckon.

I’ve seen the book labelled thriller, but it doesn’t really have the pacing of a thriller. Most of the book is more of an intricate character study of Eileen, following her around for a week, leading up to an unknown event which will cause her to leave her hometown forever. I loved the characterisation. Some of it is pretty grim—Eileen lives in filth and squalor, and hates her body to the point where she near starves herself, and then purges with laxatives, whilst drinking pretty heavily. Her relationship with her father is strained—he’s been a drunk for years, and has delusions and paranoia. But as the story takes shape, it becomes apparent that there never really was a golden time for Eileen. The retrospective style of narration, with the promise of escape and a better time, lifts the book from utter bleakness, so there’s humour and hope.

Whilst Eileen’s situation is not typical, there are some interesting reflections on women and sexuality at that time, and the limited roles available. Eileen’s not simply a victim of circumstance. She’s often quite an unpleasant, frustrating character, although I actually found her sympathetic as well.

The thriller element only really makes up the later part of the story, when Rebecca embroils Eileen in a surprising plot that finally snaps her out of the trap her life’s become. I won’t spoil the twist, but it was unexpected for me, even though the narrative is shaped towards that moment.

Eileen’s well worth a look, if you go in expecting a deep character study, and not a pacey thriller.

Queer Book Club: Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley

lies-we-tell-ourselves-coverLies We Tell Ourselves is a YA historical fiction novel set in 1959 Virginia. It follows the story of Sarah and Linda, both seniors, who are on opposing sides of the battle to desegregate the town’s high school. Sarah is one of 9 black students starting in the previously all white high school, whereas Linda is the daughter of the local newspaper editor, a staunch and outspoken segregationist. At first, the two girls seem irrevocably opposed to one another, but are thrown together to complete a school French project. Despite the violence and bullying surrounding the new black students, despite their divisions, the two girls fall in love.

The novel is told from the points of view of both Sarah and Linda. It’s a heavy read. The first section, which is all from Sarah’s point of view, follows in close-up the horror of starting high school faced with so much opposition. The first walk up to the door of the school on the first day is a gruelling battle through racial taunts and missiles, while the police look on and do nothing. Every school day, every lesson, every lunchtime, every journey down a corridor, becomes fraught with danger and humiliation for the students. It quickly becomes clear that in order for this historic change to be made beyond a statute book or court, the students will pay with their physical and mental wellbeing. And things go from bad to worse as the strain takes its toll. Although the novel is told from both points of view, it felt more like Sarah’s story than Linda’s, and I think that’s a good thing.

This is such a powerful book. Talley captures the experiences of Sarah in such detail, and it’s painful to follow her, even though she’s incredibly strong through it all. Linda also goes on a journey, from blind prejudice to realisation that her father’s message of racial superiority, and the violence he brings even into his own home, are not the right way, even though she’s lived with them all her life. It’s definitely an eye-opening novel, if this is a period of history you don’t know a lot about. And if it is, Talley still makes it personal.

The story looks at the choices available to young women at the time, and both girls have to take control of their own lives before they can figure out what they want for the future. They must also come to terms with religious teachings that tell them their love for each other is wrong. I liked that there is nothing mushy about their relationship, nothing overly sentimental. Really, the romance takes a back seat to the history and self-discovery. Love isn’t going to fix everything, they have to do the heavy lifting themselves.

Even though this is a tough read, there’s hope and love. Talley has a particular gift for creating powerful moments, both of horror and joy, and I ended up in tears more than once. Not a book, or a historical lesson, I’m going to forget in a hurry.