Queer Book Club: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

song-of-achilles-coverA retelling of the love story of Achilles and Patroclus. The Song of Achilles follows the story from Patroclus’ point of view, from boyhood, charting his friendship and eventual relationship with Achilles, all the way until their tragic end in the Trojan War. (And I’m not going to apologise for spoilers. That would be silly.) Not a recent publication, but I loved it a lot, so I’m going to stick a review here.

It’s taken me a little while to process this one. Not because I had problems with it, but because the emotions are so huge, they took a little longer to digest than normal sized non-mythic emotions. It is a joy as a story, and also caused me to reflect on the use of epic emotions in storytelling, and the role tragic stories play in modern literature. As a love story, it is beautiful and well studied, and those epic emotions are heartbreaking at times. I love the larger than life quality of it—Miller really captures the mythic nature of the originals, while making it all much more personal and focused. The writing style is simple but lyrical.

There are some changes to the familiar stories, the main one being Patroclus is not a fighter. He chooses to focus his skills solely on herbalism and healing. The relationship between Patroclus and Achilles is committed and unambiguously sexual from their teens, though the content is fairly chaste. Miller focuses on the emotion side of their relationship. The gods still play a role, though their interference isn’t quite as constant as in classical myth. But there is a sense of doom and fate hanging over the story. Achilles’ mother, the goddess Thetis, is really quite a sinister figure in this version, and is set against Patroclus, as unworthy of her son.

Miller does a good job of making Achilles a sympathetic character, despite his overweening pride and epic ability to sulk; we see him through the eyes of his lover, and all his best traits shine through.

There’s something extremely satisfying in following a love story from start to end. And to witness characters acting out these mythic stories, driven by such huge emotions. Whether you’re a fan of Greek myth, or just like a good love story, this is really a wonderful book.

Queer Classics: Mr Norris Changes Trains by Christopher Isherwood

Mr Norris cover

Continuing with my Isherwood burn, I read this and Goodbye to Berlin as part of a collection. This was my favourite of the two (though I might get around to reviewing the other one as well).  This is one of Isherwood’s pre-war Berlin novels (this one published in 1935) which capture his experiences of the city at the time leading up to WW2. William Bradshaw, an English man living in Berlin, strikes up a friendship with Arthur Norris whilst on a train to the city. Norris, with his strange manners, ill-fitting wig and suspicious passport, intrigues the somewhat detached and sarcastic Bradshaw.

The whole novel has a light, satirical quality to it which I really enjoyed. Bradshaw’s detachment is almost ridiculous at times, and eventually leads him into hot water (I won’t give any more away). It’s really the humorous observations and characterisations that were the highlight of the book for me. Isherwood plays with Bradshaw’s youthful detachment in contrast to the very serious, and sometimes violent, political backdrop playing out around him. Norris is a serial fabricant, incapable of facing or telling the truth about his business dealings, his past or his financial realities; he’s a really amusing character.

Likely because of the time it was written (and the semi-autobiographical nature of his stories at this time), sexuality is treated quite coyly. One of the characters, a German aristocrat, Baron Pregnitz, is quite clearly gay, but Isherwood is much more vague about Bradshaw’s sexuality. Although at one point, Bradshaw uses his intimacy with Pregnitz to lure him into an intrigue on behalf of Norris.

Mr Norris is enjoyable as satire, and an interesting insight into a place and time that had such a profound impact on the 20th century and beyond. The plot twist for me wasn’t much of a surprise, but that didn’t really mar my enjoyment.

Queer Classics: The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall

The Well of Loneliness cover

The Well of Loneliness is the story of Stephen Gordon, an aristocratic woman who prefers to dress in a masculine fashion, and who loves women. It is perhaps the first coming out story published (let me know of others, if I’m wrong), and sets down the pattern for that particularly kind of Bildungsroman that many other coming out stories would follow, charting Stephen’s life from childhood to adulthood, as she negotiates her way around her particular sexuality and gender identity.

I read The Well of Loneliness as part of my research for the 1920s novel I’m currently working on. It’s one of those books I’ve been meaning to read forever. Sadly, it turned out to be a bit of a chore, and while it definitely does provide valuable historical insight into how sexuality was viewed at the time  (1928), it’s not a book I would recommend reading for entertainment. So, a rare negative review from me, but Radcliffe Hall isn’t still around to care. Expect scare quotes.

It’s an iconic book, thrust into the limelight by an obscenity trial at the time of publishing. The book received support from writers at the time on point of principle (including E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf), but when Hall asked them to support the book for its literary merit, they refused.

I found it a tricky read because it’s just not very well written: the style is old fashioned and stodgy for the time, considering who her literary peers were. It’s also painfully sentimental, which again seems very old fashioned for the period. I read the Wordsworth Classics edition (pictured, with lovely Tamara Lempicka cover), which has a helpful introduction by Dr Esther Saxey, placing the book in its historical and cultural context. Saxey suggests that it’s impossible to separate The Well of Loneliness from the development of lesbian identities, as it was so influential.

The book is interesting from the point of view that it captures a time when conceptions of sexuality and gender identity were in a state of flux, with conflicting theories being presented by psychologists and sexologists. Hall favours the idea of the “congenital invert” put forward by Havelock Ellis, a sexologist at the time. Previous sexologists had considered this condition to be degenerative, but Ellis saw it as natural and not harmful, and he even wrote an introduction to the novel for Hall. It’s impossible to really draw comparisons between this historical conception and our moderns concepts of identity, as the idea of the “invert” ties gender and sexuality together, and considers same sex love to be a feature of either masculine or feminine biology. Stephen is extremely masculine in appearance, and likes to do traditionally male activities, and this masculinity is seen as inherently tied to her love of women. The love of women is borne out of her gender identity, effectively. So in that regard, she falls somewhere in between a butch lesbian and a straight transgender man, and the story reads as much like the history of one as the other, in terms of modern labels. Hall saw Ellis’s ideas as liberating in comparison to previous notions of physical degeneracy or mental illness, but it’s not always completely clear in the novel that Hall has left those notions behind. Hall also draws on her Catholic beliefs, sometimes presenting Stephen as a martyr.

As a story, it’s a pretty miserable read. Hall hoped to write the book as an apology for the “invert”, so that people might accept them. But pity is the main emotion called for. “Inverts” are shown to be unusually sensitive, not because of any social stigma, but apparently because of their biology. Stephen spends a lot of time in periods of dark depression, and even when she finds love, seems largely to loathe herself and feel guilty for warping the life of her lover. Hall defined herself as a “congenital invert”, and it doesn’t read as a story written by someone who is at all at peace with their own sense of self.

So, read Well of Loneliness if you’re really interested in the history of queer identities, but don’t expect a wildly entertaining ride.

Queer Book Club: You Know Me Well by Nina LaCour and David Levithan

You Know Me Well coverYou Know Me Well is a YA coming of age novel, set in San Francisco, with a vein of romance. Mark is in love with his best friend, Ryan, who runs hot and cold with him and isn’t ready to come out, whereas Kate is in love with a dream girl her best friend set her up with, who she’s never even met before. Among all the confusion and turmoil of their final years in school, what Mark and Kate really need in the end is a good friend to get them through—and luckily they find each other.

The story alternates chapters between Mark and Kate. I enjoyed both characters, and didn’t have that horrible sensation that sometimes happens with multiple points of view, of craving one character more than another. The characters are very different—Mark is much more sporty and conventional, whereas Kate is an artist—but they complement each other because they’re both very sensitive to each other’s needs. While each of them is paralysed at times by their fears for themselves, their friendship means that they have the support they need to push through their fears. Kate’s self-sabotaging anxiety is pretty astounding at times, but it’s also what brings her and Mark together.

The representation of teenage life is much closer to my own experience than some YA I’ve read, so that was easy to connect with. School is there, but the characters are also around in the city, going to clubs and bars, drinking, going to house parties. I also liked the way that when the characters take risks, really cool things can happen to them. They push each other to be better, to believe in their own abilities, particularly where Kate’s art is concerned. There’s almost a fairy tale quality to the night they meet, when, just for a short time, their dreams start to come true.

This book has a lot of queer characters, which is cool. Most of the characters are out, and they draw strength from that sense of community and shared experience. The book also touches on the awkwardness of coming out, with Mark’s friend Ryan, not because Ryan is living in a repressive community, but because he’s just not ready to share that private part of himself with the world. Because there are all these different queer characters, the writers are able to show lots of different queer experiences. At the centre of the story is the friendship between Mark and Kate, and it’s refreshing to see friendship celebrated over romance in this context.

This is a very enjoyable book. As I say, there’s a fairy tale quality about a few bits, which didn’t feel entirely realistic, but I’m not all that fussed about realism if the story is good.

Queer Classics: A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood.

A Single Man coverA Single Man follows a day in the life of George Falconer, a middle-aged gay Englishman, living in LA, who has lost his lover. The story follows George through ordinary scenes of his working life in the local university, to the death bed of his late partner’s one time lover, to night swimming on a local beach. At different times, George does and does not confront his grief and loss. The day takes him from rage to joy to sorrow, and is beautiful in the way that Isherwood observes and captures small moments. George finds joy in unexpected little things, and in the company of others.

I grew up reading books written by Isherwood’s generation, though this is the first of his books I’ve read. I enjoyed the simple, pared down style, and hands-off observational approach. A Single Man is a very short book, but it is exactly the right length. It’s sad to think that books this length are now rejected out of hand.

One of the most striking things is the way that George carries on with his life in stubborn determination not to appear as a recent widower, but it’s clear from the way he has got rid of all his partner’s pets, the way he visits his partner’s one time lover in hospital, even though he hates her, the way he haunts their old meeting places, how profoundly he is affected. And there’s a very realistic feel to George’s confusion of contradictory emotions and actions—at one minute joy, the next anger.

The only downside really is that I found a couple of bits a little sexist and racist. I think, simply that the story is a product of its time (1964), but not horribly so. I didn’t feel especially that these were things Isherwood was promoting in the story, simply minor elements that crept in. It’s still worth a look.

I recommend avoiding spoilers until you’ve read the whole thing.

I have his Berlin novels, Mr Norris Changes Trains and Goodbye to Berlin on my reading pile, so I’ll post about them when I’ve done.

Queer Book Club: The Abyss Surrounds Us by Emily Skrutskie

The Abyss picLast month, I joined a queer book club as part of my writing group. (It’s run by another writer, Tabitha Chirrick.) This fits nicely with my New Year’s resolution of reading a whole lot more. So far both are going well, and I thought it’d be cool to review some of the books I’m reading, both for the club and otherwise. I’m not really interested in tearing other writers down, so I’ll just cover books I enjoyed and would recommend.

The Abyss Surrounds Us is a YA science fiction novel set in a bleak future where the sea has risen and is full of ruthless pirates. It has giant genetically engineered sea monsters and lesbian pirates. What more do you need, really? It was a great way to start the new club.

Cassandra Leung’s family breed the giant sea monsters that keep ships safe from pirates in this dark future, and Cassandra has spent her life learning to train the animals. She finally gets to go out with her giant sea turtle on her first lone mission. And everything goes wrong….

Cassandra finds herself on a pirate ship, surrounded by the enemy, who want to use her skills for their own protection.

So that’s the set-up, and it’s really strong. I love the concept of genetically engineered sea monsters who can tear and chew through ships. The harsh code of the trainers which means that, by rights, when Cass is captured by the enemy, she should take a suicide pill, makes it clear what sort of world this is. There are no easy choices, and the story doesn’t offer any.

The story revolves around Cass’s survival and her relationship with Swift, one of the pirate crew. Skrutskie does a good job of exploring the problematic side of the relationship between a captive and her captor, and throws in plenty of questions about how much choice they have in the roles they play and the paths they’ve taken. Refreshingly, there’s little angst about the queer nature of their relationship. Although, I would have welcomed a smidge more sexual tension at times.

It’s a quick and enjoyable read. My only criticism really is that the ending felt a little rushed, as (without giving too much away), there’s a big emotional bomb very near the end which wasn’t given enough room to be explored. But Skrutskie’s planning a sequel, so perhaps that’s why.

I’d love to know what you think of this book, if you’ve read it. More reviews coming soon.

When I Grow Up I want to be a Gay 1920s Aristocrat

20s books

I’m in the line of impossible dreams. Sometimes, on my wildest days, I imagine I’ll make a living from writing. These last few months, for research, I’ve had my head stuck in a series of early 20th century novels, immersing myself in the world of bright young people. Even when I was a kid, watching cross-dressing, monocle wearing Sissy in the BBC’s comedy You Rang My Lord, I knew there was something a bit queer about the 1920s. People, some people, probably mostly rich people with not much to lose, pushed boundaries around identity and sexuality and dress. The idea of the gay 1920s aristocrat is extremely iconic for me. It offers the possibility of a particular kind of maleness which, as a not especially macho trans man, is very attractive to me. It’s exemplified in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.

I write a lot of gay characters, so I tend to have possibly more than the average quantity of male characters in my books. And I think a lot about the way I want to represent those male characters. I feel that sometimes modern conceptions of what maleness means are pretty narrow. Marketing profiling and no doubt all manner of other social factors have redefined male gender in narrow terms. It feels like some of the flexibility bought in the 70s and early 80s, with movements like glam, new romantic and goth, has been lost. Even though the labels for gender are proliferating, the actual conceptions of what maleness means don’t feel more flexible to me.

When I read books from the early 20th century, maleness feels more flexible. A wider variety of male characters are allowed. Maybe there’s a slightly different approach to storytelling too. There’s not an aggressive push for main characters to seize the day, take the bull by the horns, have piles of agency. Because that’s only one kind of story that can be told.

There’s a lot of boundary pushing going on in the 20s. A kickback against the Edwardians and Victorians that went before. A reaction to the war as well, of course. In Vile Bodies, the characters struggle to find a place to eat on a journey because one of the women is wearing trousers, and one of the men stops to apply make-up to his eyelashes in a restaurant and is thrown out. The wilful pushing of boundaries of dress and gender, of pushing against the Victorian and Edwardian strictures, is a lot of fun to watch. Waugh’s characters are based on the real bright young people. People like Stephen Tennant and Brian Howard, who were notorious for pushing things as far as they could.

One thing I noticed was, at least in some circles, physical affection between men wasn’t a big deal. In fact, it was expected much more so, perhaps, than in the present day. Even in Maurice, (E.M. Forster’s story of male love, which he didn’t publish in his lifetime) with all of Forster’s fears, it’s clear that very close friendships between men are normal, that touching your friend, wrestling with them, or even sitting at your friend’s feet, was not considered out of the ordinary, or an indication of anything other than close friendship. There’s a beauty in that easy display of affection that’s lost to us now. There are also plenty of male characters of a type that is perhaps less common now. Men that aren’t especially macho or heroic or action-oriented. For those of us looking for a more flexible model of masculinity, it’s a welcome relief.

And that’s why I want to be a gay 1920s aristocrat when I grow up. I can dream.