Elinor reviews The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

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Like basically every other queer lady bookworm my age, Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith matter to me. Until recently, though, I hadn’t tried Sarah Waters’ other work.  I read The Night Watch on a whim, and I’m glad I did. This quiet slice-of-life novel is slow, but I fell in love with the characters. This novel is told backwards, starting with a couple weeks in 1947, then covering a few months in 1944, and finally showing the events of a handful of days in 1941. It tells the intersecting tales of three women and one young man in London. Each is, in their own way, privately reeling from past hurt, and the reasons for their pain are teased out over the course of the book.

The novel opens with Kay, a masculine lesbian who is renting a flat from a faith healer. Kay spends her days walking, going to the movies, and visiting a friend she met as an ambulance driver during the war. The story soon shifts to Viv and Helen, friendly colleagues who each have secrets. Helen lives with her girlfriend, a writer named Julia, but to the world they pretend they are only friends. Viv has illicitly been seeing her boyfriend, Reggie, for years, and their once passionate relationship has fizzled. The narration also focuses on Viv’s brother, Duncan, a young man living with an older man who he calls his uncle. Duncan works in a factory, and once a week takes his “uncle” to the faith healer below Kay’s flat. When Duncan unexpectedly encounters someone from his past, it threatens to upend his life as well as Viv’s.  Each character’s post-war life is presented matter-of-factly and with a tinge of mystery of what how exactly they ended up with their present struggles. Why is Kay lost and depressed? What keeps Viv with Reggie? Why is Helen so paranoid about her relationship with Julia? Why is Duncan underachieving and living with this “uncle”? What connects Viv, Helen, Duncan, and Kay?

The story then moves back years earlier, during the war, and provides a dramatically different view of the same characters and their relationships. The bulk of the story takes place in this period and reveals most of the reasons for their post-war malaise. Finally, the novel concludes with a single event in each character’s life that placed them on their course.

The book was heartbreaking and very beautiful. I loved the inventive structure and once I was invested, I cared about the characters. The horrors of the blitz are portrayed in visceral detail, as are other private horrors that the characters face. Discovering how each character ended up in their situation is fascinating, and incredibly sad. Waters knows how to evoke emotion without being cloying or sentimental, and she does not pull punches with this book.

I loved it, but other readers may find The Night Watch too depressing. I felt emotionally drained when I finished it. For me, it was worth it, but fans of happy endings might disagree. Whether or not you enjoy the book depends largely on the degree to which you engage with the characters, and not everyone will like these reserved Londoners and their private struggles. This is not a novel with an action-packed plot, which keeps the reader close to the main characters. If you don’t connect with the characters during the 1947 section, you probably won’t enjoy hundreds more pages with them. If you appreciate them, however, the book is haunting. I particularly felt for Kay, a gallant butch with the ability to stay calm in a crisis, whose bravery was essential in World War II but seems to have no place in 1947. I rarely see characters like Kay, even in lesbian books, though she incredibly true to people I’ve known in real life. I sometimes wished the book was just Kay’s story plus Helen’s, as I found Viv and Duncan sort of boring initially. By the end Viv and Duncan won me over, and Duncan’s 1941 scene was incredibly powerful and emotionally devastating, but Kay was still my favorite.

Did I like The Night Watch more than my long-standing Sarah Waters favorites? No, but it was gorgeous. I highly recommend it. Just keep some tissues handy.

Casey reviews Miss Timmins’ School for Girls by Nayana Currimbhoy

Timmins

Miss Timmins’ School for Girls, by Nayana Currimbhoy, might be described as a mystery, a classic whodunit murder story.  But it can also equally be called a romance, a coming of age story, and an historical novel set in 1970s India.  It’s perhaps because this book is all those things and more that makes it such a successful, entertaining read.

Don’t start Miss Timmins’ School for Girls right before you go to bed, because this is a book that sucks you in immediately with a flash forward to the death that is central to the plot.  Of course, you remember that this death is going to happen as you keep reading, but because you hadn’t met any of the characters at that point, it starts to feel fuzzier and fuzzier until mid-book, when it actually happens and it’s shocking, and you can’t believe you’re only half way through the story.  What could possibly happen next?

The first part is a lot of fun to read: you follow Charu, a 21-year-old middle class “good Brahmin girl” whose parents are tentatively letting her out into the world, to work as a teaching at a British boarding school tucked away in a monsoon-ridden mountainous corner of India.  It’s the 70s, right, so there’s all that talk of free love, mind-expanding drugs, and new freedoms, and Charu has never heard of any of it until she’s introduced through her new friends, including a white girl raised in India who also happens to be a lesbian.  You can probably guess the romance that buds between the two women, and it’s pretty cute, and exciting, and realistic.  Currimbhoy does a great job with characterisation, making both women likable, flawed, and just complex enough to frustrate the reader sometimes.

But it’s only the first half of the book that focuses on the romance: just when I wondered how Currimbhoy was going to continue telling the story, she switches narrative perspective, and we suddenly start hearing it from the point of view of one of the girls at the school.  This was disorienting at first, but plot-wise very effective, allowing Currimbhoy to describe the action from a less emotionally involved and knowing angle.  In some ways I don’t want to say much about the second half, because it somehow feels like a spoiler, even though you actually find out who dies in the first few pages of the book.  But I think you’re meant to kind of forget, or at least this was my experience, so I don’t want to ruin it for you.

One thing I will tell you, is that we discover Charu isn’t exclusively attracted to women, which was a nice surprise for me, always on the lookout for dynamic bisexual characters.  Also, the teenage girls were really great to read about too: there’s something about the trope of all these girls pent up in a boarding school—especially this one, where the monsoons keep them stuck inside—that creates an atmosphere ripe for all sorts of mischief.  Also, I think I’m just attracted in some perverse way to the routine and orderliness of a boarding school—I’ve always kind of wished I could have gone to one (and got to wear the uniform).

Aside from the boarding school teen girl antics, there is of course a murder to be solved. I am notoriously terrible at this kind of investigation, so those readers who are schooled in figuring out whodunit would likely fare better than I did.  I was totally stunned by every twist, but, again, mystery is not my literary forte.  The thing is, the mystery is really only part of the novel, even in the second half, so if you’re either a mystery buff or someone who normally doesn’t read mystery, I think there’s a little something for everyone from this really standout first novel from Nayana Currimbhoy.

Danika reviews The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

PayingGuestsSarah Waters is my favourite author, with Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith tied as my all-time favourite books. When I discovered her books, she had already published four novels, which I rapidly devoured. In 2010 she released another book, The Little Stranger, which I enjoyed, but was less eager to get my hands on because it was her first novel with no lesbian content. So ever since I heard about The Paying Guests being released I’ve been chomping at the bit for a chance to read a brand new (lesbian) Sarah Waters novel. It’s one of the very few books that I immediately bought the day it was released. And then, oddly, it sat on my shelf for about a month. My excitement to read it has transformed into a kind of dread. I haven’t read a Sarah Waters book for 4 years: longer than that since I read a lesbian book of hers, which was back when I was a teenager. What if it wasn’t as good as the others? What if I don’t like her writing as much as I used to and it’s not like I remember?

So I went into The Paying Guests with a lot of expectation, though very little knowledge of the plot. I knew it was set in 1920s London, and that involved a woman who takes in a young couple as lodgers, and that there was lesbian content. As I started to read, I relaxed a little. Sarah Waters has a skill of establishing place and mood, and I was soon submerged in the setting, which is different than the more freewheeling flapper stories that I’ve previously read about set in this time period. For Frances, the main character, the Victorian era isn’t that far in the past. I also instantly loved Frances, who struggles to take care of a huge house as well as her aging mother, but still remembers her life when she wasn’t so tied down. The paragraph were Frances first charmed me was

There were spells of restlessness now and again; but any life had those. There were longings, there were desires… But they were physical matters mostly, and she had no last-century inhibitions about dealing with that sort of thing. It was amazing, in fact, she reflected, as she repositioned her mat and bucket and started on a new stretch of tile, it was astonishing how satisfactorily the business could be taken care of, even in the middle of the day, even with her mother in the house, simply by slipping up to her bedroom for an odd few minutes, perhaps as a break between peeling parsnips or while waiting for dough to rise–

A movement in the turn of the staircase made her start. She had forgotten all about her lodgers. Now she looked up through the banisters to Mrs Barber just coming uncertainly down.

She felt herself blush, as if caught out.

It’s interesting how the feel of the time period seems to straddle the line between historical and modern, which was interesting to compare to Waters’s previous books. I found myself thinking that I would love to read them in order of the time period in which each book is set, because she seems to convey the subtle attitude changes through the decades so well.

I enjoyed the romance as well, which seemed natural and compelling, though occasionally verging on the soap operatic. What I wasn’t expecting, however, was the overall tone to the book, which is fairly bleak. It feels similar to Affinity in that way. Most of the book revolves around an event that happens about a third of the way through the book, and because I wasn’t expecting that to be the focus, I was thrown. Even after finishing the book a couple of days ago, I still feel like I’m processing it. It is an excellent book, which definitely lives up to her previous books, but it felt emotionally jarring to me, which is probably because I wasn’t expecting it to be so dark. I would still recommend this one, but I wouldn’t start here as your first Sarah Waters novel.

The rest of my thoughts are spoilers. Highlight to read. I definitely wasn’t expecting The Paying Guests to get so bleak. The description of falling in love is sweet, if realistically syrupy. But the descriptions of falling out of love, of finding yourself hating the person you love, of finding yourself becoming someone you never thought you would be–they were absolutely cutting. Sarah Waters doesn’t just understand setting, she really knows how to portray tangled, messy human emotions. And that–more than the murder, more than the trials–was what horrified me in The Paying Guests. I’m not sure if it was intentional, but I definitely found myself on Lillian’s side more than Frances’s. Frances lashing out at Lillian, beginning to treat her in ways reminiscent of Leonard, it inspired a visceral disgust in me. At the same time, though, I could all too easily understand why Frances was acting the way she was, and could relate in ways that I didn’t want to.

I thought that the ending would really determine what I thought of the book overall. I couldn’t see how Waters could possibly write an ending that was emotionally satisfying, but she managed to find pretty much the only ending that could have worked. It’s more bitter than sweet, but there’s still an element of hope, and maybe some redemption. It didn’t erase the gut reaction I had to the story, though, which I feel like I’m still carrying around. I wasn’t sure how to rate this book after I read it, because it seems unfair to mark it down for being too emotionally affecting, but I also don’t know how to look at it objectively. In the end, I have to think that anything that evokes this kind of response has to be recognized, at the very least, as incredibly skilled. If you feel like having you heart very slowly torn out, pick up The Paying Guests.

Casey reviewed Main Brides by Gail Scott

Gail Scott’s 1993 book Main Brides is less a novel than a series of snapshots, taken with the camera of the protagonist Lydia’s eyes.  She sits in a café-bar on St. Laurent in Montreal—also known as the Main, which the title refers to—observing the women who come and go.  These “women travellers, like sleepwalkers, move unerringly” and are “always packing up, and going here and there”; they are contemporary women in all their diversity, who “exert[…] great control on their existence.”  Lydia imagines these women’s life stories and histories while watching them, gathering what she can from their appearances and interactions.  She in fact creates their realities, wishing for a “history where anyone can enter”; the narrative actually often moves away from Lydia entirely and enters the reality of the watched women.  One of these women is a lesbian who has recently returned home from a vacation to Cuba with her sister, where they unsuccessfully attempted to move past—or perhaps run from and forget—the sexual assault her sister recently faced in their shared apartment.  Lydia also watches a lesbian couple, one a cowgirl from Alberta and the other a Montrealer, who is attracted to the cowgirl’s difference yet embarrassed to introduce her to her snobbish Francophone lesbian-feminist friends.  The Montrealer is especially embarrassed because, despite her efforts to assimilate into her intellectual lesbian-feminist circle, her cowgirl girlfriend can hear a twist of Albertan in her voice: a reminder that the Montrealer’s mother is actually from Edmonton.  Lydia herself also reads as queer: describing Z., a performance artist from Ottawa, her infatuation with this theatrical, “emaciated drag queen” of a woman is clear.

After we hear these fascinating, surreal stories—fragments, really, of these women’s lives—the narrative constantly returns to Lydia, who sits waiting in the bar, drinking coffee and then, as the day progresses, wine.  What exactly she is waiting for is uncertain.  Is there something in these women’s lives that she needs to discover before she can go home?  We also begin to feel uncertain about the veracity of Lydia’s stories: are they accurate?  Do we believe her histories of these women’s lives to be true, or not?  Is this woman’s life really how Lydia describes, or is Lydia just imagining it that way?  Does she have any reason to imagine their lives as one way or another?  Scott in fact leaves these questions unanswered; or, perhaps, they are not useful as questions.  If we are working with a sense that “anyone can enter,” and therefore change, history, then we have to let go of the safety of fixed identities and histories.  Lydia enters, explores, and creates the stories of the women she encounters, presenting the readers with a “smooth and gently moving” history, one that is nuanced, broad, and accessible, rather than mean and categorical.  It is this kind of attitude towards history and storytelling that is open to those identities and histories that have been often neglected—like those of lesbian and queer women, but also women more broadly.  Lydia’s imagined realities for these women are no less real than their own imagined realities, or her perception of her own life.  If you are in a kind of melancholy or meditative mood, and feel like exploding open your own sense of self, I’d recommend sitting down in a bar or café—preferably a dark and dingy place like the one Lydia has chosen—with a glass of wine or a mug of coffee and immersing yourself in the lives of the brides—queer and non-queer alike—of the Main.

Casey reviews Ana Historic by Daphne Marlatt

For a viscerally experimental and gorgeously postmodern glimpse at queer Canadian women’s herstory, there is no better place to look than Daphne Marlatt’s 1988 novel Ana Historic.  I say postmodern and experimental because the novel undoubtedly is, but this is not so much a warning as an invitation to watch Marlatt deftly and beautifully use words to carve out a space for queer women not only in Canadian history, but also in contemporary Canadian society.  This carving needs to take the form of Marlatt’s disarming poetics and rhizomatic, circular style in order to do the difficult and necessary work of counteracting the overwhelmingly masculinist history that the protagonist Annie—ironically or perhaps appropriately a failed history graduate student—begins to understand as only “a certain voice” (111).

The anchor in the novel, Annie Torrent, is a contemporary Vancouverite disappointed with the ways in which her life has followed a conventional woman’s heterosexual plotline.  She becomes obsessed with a little-known historical figure, Mrs. Richards, a widowed British woman who emigrated to Vancouver in the late 1800s and determines to tell her story.  This telling is mostly directed at Annie’s mother Ina, at whom Annie is angry, perhaps most of all for the ways in which she begins to see their lives overlapping; like Ina, Annie is “in the midst of freedom yet not free” (54).  She realizes the life she is living, married with children to her former history professor Richard—whose name of course echoes Mrs. Richards’s name, which is the rem(a)inder of her deceased husband—is unfulfilling but she struggles to build a path that might lead out of it.  Luckily, Annie meets Zoe, an artist, in the archives while doing research for her project and Zoe becomes her first reader, challenging Annie both about her feminist politics as well as sexually. When near the end of the novel Zoe provocatively asks Annie what she wants, Annie boldly answers: “you. i want you. and me. together” (157).  The end of Annie’s story in the novel, then, is only her lesbian beginning.

Telling the life stories of Annie, her mother Ina, and Mrs. Richards, Marlatt creates an alternative queer feminist discourse that refuses to be tied down into either a linear narrative or conclusive characterization.  Indeed, although there are distinctions made between the three main characters, their identities are also necessarily blurred, in the same way that the novel refuses to draw boundaries between prose and poetry and between fiction and history.  At one point, Ina accuses her daughter: “the trouble with you, Annie, is that you want to tell a story, no matter how much history you keep throwing at me” (27).  This profoundly poetic novel insists, however, that history is nothing but men’s stories made fact and that women need to dismantle the fiction/fact dichotomy and “mak[e] fresh tracks” with their own stories in the snowy landscape of the past (98).  Women writing their stories, as Annie does for Mrs. Richards and Marlatt does for Annie (and perhaps herself?), is the “body insisting itself in the words” (46).  If you can look at the words of this novel as a woman’s body—that delightful and frightening unruly femaleness—then the sometimes bewildering experience of sifting through Ana Historic can become a delightfully ecstatic one.  There is an enormous amount of life in this novel; Marlatt presents us with the vivid image that books are “breath bated between two plastic covers” (16) and I’d encourage any reader to challenge herself to mingle her breath with Marlatt’s and her characters’ by picking up Ana Historic.

Mfred reviews Skin Beneath by Nairne Holtz

I cannot adequately explain the joy, the incredible sense of pleasure, I derived from reading this book. Even as the book’s plot unraveled a bit at the end, I enjoyed every moment of reading Nairne Holtz’s Skin Beneath. The first paragraph:

Sam unlocks the mailbox in the lobby of her building, takes out a single envelope, opens the back flap to discover a postcard inside. She reads the words on the postcard: “Your sister died while investigating a political conspiracy. Coincidence? How often do women kill themselves with a gun? Think about it.”

What an opening, right? First, the sentence is not a fluke– the entire novel occurs in third person, present tense. Which is just… amazing. In a lesser writer’s hands, it could have come across as gimmicky, or even intrusive. It was a little mesmerizing, instead, to experience the events of a book at the same time as the protagonist. And secondly, the subject matter! A dead sister! A conspiracy! Holtz not only writes well, she also imagines a great plot.

Interestingly, this is a difficult book to sum up because it’s only a mystery on the surface. Five years after her sister’s death by overdose, Sam receives a post card claiming Chloe’s death was not an accident at all, but murder. Still struggling with grief and guilt, Sam decides to trace the mystery of her sister’s last months by moving to Montreal and trying to figure out who Chloe knew, where she worked, what she did, etc., before dying in the Chelsea Hotel in New York. In Montreal, she becomes entangled with Omar and Romey, Chloe’s ex-boyfriend and ex-roommate– both of whom appear to have secrets of their own.

The mystery of Chole’s death is the impetus for Sam to change her life — as she finds out more and more about the secrets of her sister’s life, she also has to deal with her own secrets, her own hidden truths. She also falls hard for Romey, even as she doesn’t quite trust her new girlfriend, or Romey’s relationship to Omar. It’s an incredible journey to follow, and I love the way new clues about Chloe reveal new sides to Sam and Romey. However, Holtz doesn’t maintain the momentum, and the end felt anti-climatic. It all kind of collapses in on itself, as some of the conspiracy revelations get a bit extraordinary in the last half of the book.

All in all, this was a great read that I highly recommend and I will definitely be picking up more books by Holtz.

Laura Mandanas reviews Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

A darker tale than one might expect, Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith is a story of deception, double-dealing, and dysfunction. Opening in 1862 in a dilapidated London slum known as the Borough, we meet heroine #1: 17-year-old Susan Trinder. Orphaned at a young age, Sue has been raised as a fingersmith (pickpocket) by Mrs. Sucksby, a crooked landlady who trafficks in foundling babies dosed with gin. When a smooth talking tenant approaches Sucksby with a get-rich-quick scheme to swindle a sheltered young heiress of her fortune, Sue eagerly volunteers to help.

The young heiress, of course, is heroine #2: Maud Lilly. Also orphaned at a young age, Maud lives a safe but excruciatingly dull existence with her uncle on an estate called Briar in the English countryside. Bored to tears and fits of mindless cruelty, Maud is punished harshly and bullied into submission as she is trained to take over her uncle’s distasteful line of work. Needless to say, when an alternative unexpectedly presents itself, Maud jumps at the opportunity. Though the two women come from opposite positions of poverty and privilege, Sue and Maud are both women confined by their circumstances. Though both are admirably strong-willed and cunning, they are also naive; preoccupied as they are in setting their elaborate traps, they often don’t see the ones set for them by others. (And as you fall for their charms, I daresay, neither will you. The Byzantine twists and hairpin turns of plot in this book are absolutely breathtaking.)

Told as a first-person narrative alternating between Sue and Maud’s points of view, the nuanced characterizations were fresh and a pleasure to read. More strikingly, the descriptive atmospheric details are among the most beautiful and realistic I’ve ever encountered. Waters is clearly a woman at home doing research, and there’s a reason why–prior to writing fiction, she was in a Ph.D. program at Queen Mary’s, studying lesbian and gay historical fiction

Although Waters is famous for penning “lesbo Victorian romps“, the actual lesbian content in this book is “more or less incidental.” And in this setting, I didn’t even mind it. The subtle touch felt right, and honestly, probably played a role in propelling the book to its success with mainstream audiences. As far as I’m concerned, the more people that get to read this lovely book, the better!

Laura Mandanas reviews Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg

A few weeks ago, I decided to bring a book into the tub for a relaxing bubble bath. When the temperature was right, I gingerly picked up the paperback and eased my way into the frothy suds, cautiously avoiding the slightest splash. I took careful pains to hold the book a deliberate 6-8 inches out of the water. I even piled up towels at the edge of the tub in case of slippery-fingered emergency. It didn’t matter; within 20 minutes the book was completely waterlogged. The culprit? Not bathwater, but tears. Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg had me weeping by the end of the first chapter.
Stone Butch Blues is a beautifully written novel. The main character, Jess, is a young Jewish butch coming of age in the late ‘60s. Drowning in loneliness, Jess finds companionship in the queer community frequenting working-class gay bars. In this pre-Stonewall era, however, their mere existence is enough to prompt brutal attack from all sides. As the story unfolds, each of these characters weather hardships of an enormity I can barely comprehend.

Jess is a complicated character, and the book (thankfully) never backs away from this. I particularly appreciated the range of characters shown throughout in the book. “Butch” identity is not reserved strictly for lesbian women that present themselves in traditionally masculine ways; men, straight and bisexual women, and transgender people can all lay equally legitimate claim to the identity.

 Stone Butch Blues is the winner of numerous literary awards, and its clear to see why. This book is an essential read — and not just for the person who “doesn’t identify as a man and is at least some of the time attracted romantically and/or sexually to others who do not identify as a man” (ha). This is a book for anyone with a soul.

Stone Butch Blues is one of the most widely read pieces of LGBT literature, and appears on the shelves of many major retailers.

Casey reviews In Another Place, Not Here by Dionne Brand

For readers unaccustomed to the Black Caribbean vernacular that begins Dionne Brand’s 1996 novel In Another Place, Not Herelike me—there’s a bid of an initial hurdle to leap over to sink into this book. But trust me, it’s worth it; and sink in you truly do. Brand is an exhilarating poet and although this is a novel, it’s definitely a poet’s novel. There is something deliciously seductive about the language, which rolls, rises, falls, and flows its way throughout the narrative. The rhythm and feel of the words are seductive to the point that their meaning at times seems secondary and, in fact, purposely elusive—a quality that might be frustrating for some readers. If you can give yourself over to the novel, though, make yourself vulnerable in a way that one of the main characters Verlia struggles to throughout the text, In Another Place, Not Here is a really rewarding read. Devoting each half of the novel to the story of one of the two women around whom the novel centres, Elizete and Verlia, Brand weaves an emotionally charged narrative that at times hits as hard as a physical assault, at others as softly as a warm wind. You read not so much to ‘find out what happens’ but rather to ride the tumultuous wave of both women’s intertwined emotionally and spiritually fraught journeys.

Elizete, whose story begins the novel, is an exploited sugar cane field labourer living in Trinidad—Brand’s mother country, though she is now a long-time Torontonian—who meets the revolutionary Verlia, also a native of Trinidad but recently returned after an emigration to and residence in Canada. There is an immediate attraction between the two women and a following relationship; Elizete describes her feelings for Verlia breathtakingly: “I sink into Verlia and let she flesh swallow me up. I devour she. She open me up like any morning. Limp, limp and rain light, soft to the marrow” (5). Erotic passages such as this are stunning, almost as if you had stumbled upon a scene truly not meant for anyone except the lovers’ eyes. Their intensity of feeling, however, collides with the seemingly insurmountable obstacles before them: racism, the legacy of slavery, misogyny, homophobia, and capitalist exploitation. Verlia has committed herself to political activism, having been part of the 1970s Black power movement in Toronto, but even her increasing radicalism cannot sustain her in the face of the placelessness and lack of belonging that plague her. Elizete too, feels this diasporic suffering: in search of meaning behind her loss of Verlia she journeys to Toronto from Trinidad but is told there by Verlia’s ex-lover Abena to “Go home, this is not a place for us” (230). There are no answers, let alone easy ones, to both Verlia and Elizete’s search for another place, not here, but their stumblings along the path looking for such a place are gorgeous, both in their sensuous highs and their devastating lows. Such a stumbling, difficult journey makes, in the end, a more worthwhile, truthful novel than a straightforward, but simplified, one would. Highly recommended!

Casey reviews Cereus Blooms at Night by Shani Mootoo

The worth of something as delicious as Shani Mootoo’s novel, Cereus Blooms at Night, would be hard to overestimate. I’ve honestly never read anything that had such a sensory effect on me: the lilting rhythm of the language, the bittersweetness of the narrative twists, everything about this novel felt so visceral. Amazingly, Cereus Blooms at Night is Mootoo’s first novel, but you would never guess; the writing as well as the plot is so richly and confidently woven. An Indo-Trinidadian-Canadian author, Mootoo sets her novel in the fictionalized island Lantanacamara—clearly a stand-in for Trinidad—and the luscious environment of the island is really a character unto itself. The dripping gorgeousness of the buzzing insects, blooming trees, and vibrant flowers—especially the central image of the illusive cereus flower—are imprinted on my mind. That said, the people in this novel—most of them queer—are as unforgettable as the tongue-twisting fictional name of the setting. Our narrator is the precocious nurse Tyler, a fighting spirit of a feminine man (or a trans woman? the text is uninterested in such labels) who works at an Alms house and is the caretaker of a mysterious elderly woman, Miss Ramchandin, who has quite the history in this small town ironically called Paradise. Gradually this woman’s heart-breaking story, a difficult and complex one in which colonization, misogyny, and homophobia have all wrecked havoc on her life, is told to us through the eyes of the sympathetic and endearing Tyler. His/her story begins to intertwine with Miss Ramchandin’s when an important person from her past and his son come to visit and a romance blossoms between the two younger folks. This queer romance is mirrored by a lesbian one (see if you can guess it coming!) that occurs in Miss Ramchandin’s past. Both are beautifully drawn and emerge all the more powerfully in juxtaposition to some of the truly horrific violence the novel depicts. While this message, one that insists on the intersectionality and interrelatedness of oppressions such as racism and homophobia, is important, it is rather with a sweet message of hope—that a clipping of “cereus will surely bloom within days”—that the novel ends. Queerness in the novel, also, begins to emerge not as a an obstacle which one must overcome but something from which characters such as Tyler draw strength and through which they are able to make connections with others. I can’t recommend Cereus Blooms at Night highly enough: instead of eating a meal of coconut curry or dessert of mango ice cream, read this! It’s just as satisfying and perhaps the taste will linger with you a little longer.