Quinn Jean reviews Stir-fry by Emma Donoghue

Trigger Warning: this novel depicts sexual harassment of underage people by an adult, discussed in this review’s fourth paragraph.

Also spoiler warning for several important plot points in this review.

Stir-Fry is an impressive debut novel, presenting a very relatable and thoughtful protagonist in Maria while also rejecting several tropes usually found in contemporary young adult novels written in the last half century. The novel takes place at the start of 17-year-old Maria’s first semester at university in Dublin after moving from her family’s home in a small village. Maria is dissatisfied living with a conservative, dull aunt in the city and answers an ad from two women seeking a flatmate, finding herself invited to dinner with 20-something students Jael and Ruth. Jael is extroverted, directionless and equal parts obnoxious and charismatic, while Ruth is a reserved but passionate feminist activist, and Maria quickly becomes close to them both after she moves in and naively doesn’t question why Ruth and Jael would share a room and a bed.

For those readers who aren’t aware of how conservative 1980s Ireland was (and the novel never explicitly explains this), it may seem a little far-fetched that Maria wouldn’t twig that her flatmates are lesbians in a relationship, but with the context of a poor, Catholic, isolated country it is distinctly plausible. This context also indicates why Maria would never have questioned her own sexuality before. The author’s presumption of reader knowledge here might make the novel feel a little inaccessible to some audiences at first, but the excellent descriptions of life in Ireland at the time paint a picture of a place where people might be pushed to be so oblivious to their own and others’ divergent sexualities. Maria’s pedestrian conversations with her classmate Yvonne–a friend Maria knows she should have but often struggles to tolerate–provide stark contrast to the vibrant, unpredictable interactions she has with her housemates, and Maria and Ruth both show miserable but resigned commitment to visiting bland family members even when the older people’s narrow ideas about life clash with the young students’ rapidly expanding intellectual worlds. The book makes it easy to empathise with Maria’s constantly changing understandings of who she is, and of the people around her, as the novel goes on and the reader sees her experiences diversify even further.

Stir-fry often feels as fractured as memory with scenes ending at ambiguous moments and skewed indications of how much time has passed. There are frequent disjointed jumps between intense conversations on raining streets to calm lounge room scenes, and Maria seems to change and recognise so much within herself, as do Ruth and Jael, and the novel ultimately only covers three months. Almost no scene in the book ends in a definite or clear manner, with characters’ last lines often leaving the reader with more questions than answers about what they mean. The scene breaks and narrative ambiguity give Stir-fry an unconventional structure and force a different kind of reading to typical young adult coming-of-age novels where characters’ thoughts and feelings are generally more clearly stated. Analysing relationships and revelations within this text requires deep concentration and thoughtful interpretation which is unexpected and rewarding.

One major criticism of the text is that an adult character at least a decade older than Maria makes advances towards her while fully aware that Maria is still a teenager and very unsure of herself sexually and romantically. This would be somewhat redeemable if there was any sort of indication anywhere in the novel that this behaviour is wrong, but it is never implied to be anything more than misguided and insensitive. These scenes toward the last third of the book may be distressing or triggering for some readers, and are certainly a large flaw in an otherwise brave, interesting and creative work.

Korri reviews Sister Mischief by Laura Goode

SisterMischief

Sister Mischief is a coming of age young adult novel about a group of friends who form the titular hip hop group in the predominantly white suburb of Holyhill, Minnesota. It’s narrated by wordsmith Esme, whose footnotes scattered throughout the book reveal the contents of text messages, lyrics scribbled in her notebook, and drop backstory in the form of memories the group shares on each other’s Facebook walls. The narrative is punctuated by earnest conversations during car drives where the girls weigh in on misogyny and racism in lyrics, if it is cultural appropriation for white girls in the affluent suburbs of the Twin Cities to love hip hop music, and if it is possible to reclaim the word bitch in rap music.

Each of the friends grapple with their identities and relationships over the course of the book: Esme is Jewish but without her mother around she doesn’t know what that means. She is out to her friends and when she finds herself falling for Rowie she is uncomfortable keeping their relationship under wraps. Tessa tries to balance her religious faith against the hypocritical and mean “Christians” she knows from church while Rowie, who usually likes boys, struggles with her feelings for Esme and the pressure from her Bengali family. Marce, who doesn’t understand why her best friend Esme never spends time with her any more, lets the slurs she receives because of the androgynous/masculine-of-center way she presents roll off her back. The four girls are bound together by their love of listening to, writing, and performing hip hop music.

The new Holyhill High School code of conduct bans rap music and “any apparel associated with this violence-producing culture,” which spurs the girls to form a queer-friendly group to discuss hip hop in an academic setting: 4H (Hip Hop for Heteros and Homos). The administration is not pleased with the idea. Shortly thereafter Esme and Rowie kiss while high in kiss in Rowie’s tree house. Before long the nights get darker earlier and Esme is sneaking over every night to make love to Rowie in the tree house. Rowie wants to keep their relationship quiet because the hetero/homo hip hop alliance has people questioning. When Esme says that that is exactly what the group is meant to do, Rowie points out that their classmates are less interested in lyrics and social attitudes than speculating about members’ sexual identities. Esme and Rowie’s relationship is revealed around the same time a 4H meeting is firebombed, leaving the future of each uncertain.

The author Laura Goode introduces readers to an engaging voice in Esme. She reminds me of Lin Manuel-Miranda’s witty and ambitious Alexander Hamilton: Esme writes like she’s running out of time. In her own words, she is “becoming the author of my own chaos” and she feels “like there’s so much work to do, so much time and so little all the same…. Time to create and re-create myself and everything I create.” I raced through this book and thoroughly enjoyed my time with the close-knit cast of characters.

 

Al Rosenberg reviews Shoulders by Georgia Cotrell

shoulders

Shoulders seems like a fictionalized memoir, but reads like a conversation with an old friend. Georgia Cotrell tells the tale of Bobbie Craword, innocent, personable lesbian, and her coming-of-age in the 1970’s. And then it tells of the fallout of all of her decisions in the 1980’s. At moments both heart-warming and anxiety-inducing, Shoulders is one of the most realistic portayals of developing sexuality I have come across.

This novel was published by Firebrand Books, an amazing short-lived lesbian and feminist book press in Ithaca, NY, in 1987 and only received a first printing, which is a shame. Cotrell herself is described on Goodreads as “a software developer and author from Austin, Texas. Her novel Shoulders was published in 1987.” That’s it, just the one book in one printing, which fits my theory that this book is more memoir than fiction.

What I find most refreshing about Shoulders is that it isn’t about the anxiety of figuring out that you’re gay. There’s no angsty self-doubt about being a lesbian, just acceptance that ladies are the prefered romantic interests.

Cotrell reveals Bobbie to us in short chapters, flashes in time. We are taken from her childhood to her teenage years to college in the first few pages. The innocence of childhood sexuality continues throughout her life in the form of romantic innocence. Most of the time Bobbie just doesn’t seem to know what she is doing. She lets her circumstances carry her in confusing and opposite directions throughout her life. I found myself forgiving her for quite a few betrayals and questionable decisions. Perhaps because I could see myself making the same “mistakes,” perhaps because I had grown to love her so dearly.

She meets, loves, befriends such a multitude of women. There are so, so many distinct female characters in this book. That by itself was fascinating and healing and wonderful. Early on in her life she meets Rachel, her dance instructor, who helps her learn about herself. In college she meets the kinds of energetic, life-changing women intellectual environments can offer you. And later in life she find Miriam, who changed my life just by imagining that someone like that might actually exist.

Like a conversation with a close, old friend, Cotrell frankly discusses heartbreak, sex, dildos, jobs that destroy you and work that lifts you up. But mostly she writes about women, in all ages, shapes and sizes. The end of Shoulders had me wishing Cotrell had continued to write, that Firebrand Books had continued to publish. Instead I’ll just reread Bobbie’s life one more time.

Al Rosenberg: Al is Games Section Editor of WomenWriteAboutComics.com. She loves lesbians, lesbians in literature, and the perfect mystery novel. Currently in Chicago working on her tattoo collection.