Susan reviews Stranger on Lesbos by Valerie Taylor

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Valerie Taylor’s Stranger on Lesbos is an example of classic pulp lesbian fiction. It was published in 1960, at the midpoint of the genre, and it seems like a really tropey example of it!

Frances Ollenfield escaped a childhood of abuse and poverty into a marriage that is slowly becoming more and more loveless as the family’s fortunes improve. When her husband suggests that she go back to university to finish her degree, Frances leaps at the chance – which happens to bring her Mary Baker, Bake to her friends, who soon becomes her lover.

When I say that Stranger on Lesbos a tropey example, I’m not exaggerating; my understanding of lesbian pulps is that the repeating tropes include bar crawling, jail time, and often a dark-haired worldly woman somehow “leading an innocent astray”, and an ending where the lesbian characters must be separate – all of which is present here, in a fast-paced and melodramatic story, as I’d hope a pulp story would be. The story focuses on the conflict between Frances’ love of her husband and son (and her boredom and disappointment with the life they’ve built as her family’s interests move away from her) and her love for Bake (with its excitement and danger, which brings her new friends and experiences, even if they sour for her as well).

The narrative is at times quite distant, which I think is a stylistic choice as it matches fairly well with Frances’ feeling of disconnection from her life and the people around her. However, there are strange time skips, in one case of two years between chapters, which don’t seem to have changed much in the character’s lives except that Frances abandons her degree again in favour of a job and the conflicts in her relationship with Bake to start to bubble through. There are also scenes that revisit Frances’ past in a mining town with her abusive father, and the emotions in those scenes are harrowing and explain a lot about where Frances came from. (I was not kidding about the melodrama!)

I have to admit though that I genuinely rooted for Frances to leave all of her relationships in the dust and walk away from about halfway through. While it’s easy to see why she fell in love with Bake (she is charming and intelligent, and presents herself as very confident and controlled), and Bill, Frances’ husband, clearly had moments where he was sweet and affectionate… None of Frances’ friends seem to make her happy, and by about half-way through both of Frances’ romantic partners treat her terribly. Bake is charming and intelligent… But also a drinker, a cheater, and lets Frances down in the worst ways when she needs her. Bill alternates between distant and actively abusive (more on that later.). Frances wants to stay with her husband for the sake of her son… But her son seems to feel contempt for the women she keeps company with, and by extension her. There is a point in the book where he asks her to give up her queer friends, with every expectation that she’d comply, and while that’s depicted as selfish and awful on his part,

(Caution warning for this paragraph: rape) As a fair warning, there are minimum two rapes and a third attempted one in this book; strangely though, the marital rape is never referred to as such, whereas the lesbian one is clearly stated to be rape. I don’t know if it’s just the time that the book was written (marital rape didn’t become a crime in the states until the 1970s), or if it’s because the circumstances around the lesbian rape (it was by a stranger, with violence, and she was drunk), but it seems really odd that they’re treated so differently. Especially because one is treated as actively reprehensible, and the other as something that could be worked past. That sound you heard was me angrily shrieking at the book.

Without any spoilers; the ending is infuriating, to the point where I had to put it down and walk away for a while. But the afterword assures me that Stranger in Lesbos is the first book in a series, and that my problems with Frances’ romantic choices might be mitigated by the third book. And while parts of this book made me angry, the writing was good enough and I was emotionally invested enough that I am considering seeing if I could track down the rest of the series. So, if you’re interested in lesbian pulp fiction, this is a solid example of it, but there are parts of it that I have significant reservations about.

Trigger warnings: homophobia, adultery, abuse, incest, rape.

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found writing for Hugo-nominated media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Susan reviews "i love this part" by Tillie Walden

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i love this part is a graphic novel by Tillie Walden, which effectively serves as snapshots of the romance and relationship between two American schoolgirls. It was described to me as a sweet queer romance… Which is half right.

For the most part, it’s simple and straightforward. The two girls are in love, and spend their days doing homework together or listening to music and playing on their computers and talking about their families and hopes for the future! There are some really interesting style choices here though. For example, the girls aren’t actually named for most of the book; I’ve been calling them Elizabeth and Rae based off a panel showing Elizabeth’s email inbox towards the end, but that might not actually be right. The spelling and capitalisation sometimes becomes text-speak during dialogue in a way that I think is deliberate but can’t be sure of. But the format of the story is what’s really novel; it’s not structured as a traditional comic! It’s a collection of one-page illustrations that tell a story individually and sequentially, and by necessity it’s done slowly and in pieces.

On the topic of the art; it’s pretty good! It’s predominantly monochromatic, with purple or grey washes for colour. The application of colour feels thematic to me — the flashbacks to how Elizabeth and Rae met and grew close are in grey, with more purple creeping in the closer they get to each other. The backgrounds are really well done; whether it’s nature or buildings, the backgrounds are really detailed and well put together. The art does some really cool things with scale as well — when Elizabeth and Rae are happy and together, they’re drawn like giants, doing their homework against the rooftops of buildings and leaning against mountains to listen to music. It read to me as a good visual way of representing how much bigger their emotions make them feel, or possibly how everything that isn’t them seem smaller and less important. (I have to admit, I really enjoy how, despite there being no other people visible when the girls are together — there are people before they get together, but after that they’re a world of two — the art still makes them feel like they’re part of the world; this change of scale and positioning contributes to that.) The way that both girls seem to shrink or the world gets bigger as the story goes on is such a good continuation of this theme. And the use of empty or silent panels (landscapes with no people, or panels of the girls not talking) works well to show time passing and contrast the spaces Elizabeth and Rae filled with each other.

Where the Much of the characterisation is handled in the same way — we learn that Elizabeth is Jewish, for example, and Rae has a stepmother she doesn’t get on with, that both of the girls play music and love instruments — but that information is parcelled out in dribs and drabs. They’re both believable teenage girls! And their love for music is really clear, even though we’re not told what music they listen to; it’s not like The Less Than Epic Adventures of TJ and Amal where the songs they’re listening to are as important as what’s going on in the page, but music is part of how Elizabeth and Rae bond and relate to each other and show their feelings, and it’s really cute.

But I need to explain that “half right”, don’t I. There will be spoilers from here-on out, I’m afraid, so for anyone who wants to go into the book mostly unspoiled: I have some mixed feelings about this book, based on the second half of it, but everyone lives. Most of it is the very sweet, peaceful story with a cute romance that I was promised! I just don’t think that the last third of it lives up to that.

See, about a third of the way through, cracks start showing in Elizabeth and Rae’s relationship. There are panels where neither of them appear (the time passing that I mentioned earlier), or where they fight about boundaries. There’s a panel where they ask each other “Do you think we’ll ever be able to tell anyone?” and conclude “Probably not,” There are panels of Elizabeth waiting for Rae, asking if she’ll be there soon — and Rae never replying. All of which culminates in Rae breaking up with Elizabeth.

Points to Tillie Walden; the way that she handled the relationship and its ending is wrenching. The panels of them arguing, and the panels of them after the break-up are genuinely affecting and thoughtful. Tillie Walden makes good choices with how she handles it; both girls are clearly broken-hearted, even Rae, and the choice she made to have the pages of them at their happiest while they were together facing the panels where they’re sobbing after they’re broken up is really effective. (Yes, guess where the titlular panel falls.) Plus, everything about it — including Rae sending a mixtape! — rings as plausible to me. But for however well it’s handled, I have two major problems with this. The first is that I am really ready for people to stop trying to sell me on queer romances where the main couple don’t make it to the end for whatever reason. We did our time on that trope, I am ready for it to be laid to rest! The second is why they break up.

See, Rae instigates the break-up because “I’m not… Like you. This — this is wrong.” And even if it’s later clarified a little more (I’m sorry. I didn’t want to hurt you. but im just not ready for this rn” [sic]. And for some reason — perhaps the space of format of the book was a limit — that’s just… Left there. There’s no rebuttal, there’s no exploration, there is just a teenage girl whose internalised homophobia is cutting her heart to ribbons, and the story leaves her there. No matter how well i love this part handles everything else, that is disappointing.

I honestly have difficulty summing up how I feel about this one. On a technical and emotional level, I can’t fault it. The art and the way it handles its characters emotions are pretty good, and I really enjoyed the way it presented the story it was telling! However, the story that it was telling was one that is really familiar to me in its beats and structure, and no matter how well done it is, I’m not sure I need that story again.

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found writing for Hugo-nominated media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.