Carmella reviews LOTE by Shola von Reinhold

LOTE by Shola von Reinhold cover

I first discovered the Bright Young Things at an exhibition of Cecile Beaton’s photography. His pictures capture the dazzling, decadent world of these young British socialites of the interwar period–their fabulous costume parties, heavy drinking, artistic flair, and taste for excess. After tearing through a number of biographies, my favourite figure became Stephen Tennant. He was–in the words of writer Lady Caroline Blackwood – “just an eccentric gay who didn’t really do anything”. What a magnificent way to be remembered!

The narrator of LOTE, Mathilda Adamarola, is also fascinated by Tennant and his friends. She experiences what she calls ‘Transfixions’–intense emotional and sensory connections to historical figures that can be strong enough to leave her in a giddy daze. Like Mathilda, most of these figures are queer and many are Black. In order to emulate her Transfixions, she has constantly reinvented her identity over the years in a series of ‘Escapes’, transforming into an ever-more dramatic version of herself. This isn’t without its problems–Mathilda explains that “People rarely allow for Blackness and caprice (be it in dress or deportment) to coexist without the designation of Madness”–and she’s certainly capricious. As a narrator, she’s wonderfully fun to spend time with.

While volunteering in the archives of the National Portrait Gallery, Mathilda is delighted to discover a new photograph of Stephen Tennant. But what is even more exciting is the young Black woman posing with him, dressed as an angel: a forgotten Scottish modernist poet called Hermia Drumm. Mathilda is immediately Transfixed and becomes determined to learn all about her.

After discovering that Hermia spent some time in a small European town, Mathilda applies to an artists’ residency there–winging the application and phone interview without knowing anything about the programme–and is soon travelling overseas to continue her detective work.

Mathilda’s fellow residents turn out to be fanatical adherents to Thought Art–an obscure strand of theory centered around minimalism, discipline and self-effacement. They are an almost unbearable contrast to the luxury-loving Mathilda. The residency is a brilliant satire of academic bullshit, with Mathilda forced to sit through mind-bogglingly dull, jargon-filled conversations about ‘Markation’ and ‘Dotage levels’. Von Reinhold’s send-up of predominantly posh, White institutions is one of the best features of the book.

While Mathilda assumes at first that there can be no connection between the residency’s austere academia and the vibrant Hermia, she soon finds something that did link them together: an enigmatic group known as LOTE. But what was LOTE? What happened to Hermia? How does it all link together? The questions become ever more tangled the more Mathilda learns.

Mysterious, decadent, and unapologetically flamboyant, LOTE is a dazzlingly good read. Behind all the champagne and cults, it’s also an intelligent interrogation of the politics of aesthetics, eurocentrism, and the presence/absence of Black figures in the artistic canon. It asks us: in a world that remembers Stephen Tennant, how many Hermia Drumms have disappeared into the archives?

Carmella reviews All Men Want to Know by Nina Bouraoui

All Men Want to Know by Nina Bouraoui

Content warning: this review references sexual assault

In the first chapter of her auto-fictional novel All Men Want to Know, Nina Bouraoui (translated from French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins) writes: “I want to know who I am, what I am made of, what I can hope for; I trace the thread of my past back as far as it will take me, making my way through the mysteries that haunt me, hoping to unravel them.”

This is just what the book sets out to do, exploring the narrator’s adult sense of identity–lesbian, writer, French, Algerian–through her past. Born to a French mother and an Algerian father, Bouraoui lived in Algiers until the age of fourteen, when her family relocated to France. Through this fictionalised narrative, Bouraoui ‘unravels’ her personal history, from a sun-baked childhood idyll in an Algeria threatened by the looming civil war of the 90s, to her search for connection as an 18-year-old in the lesbian nightlife of Paris, to her mother’s own life and experiences of sexual assault.

The story is told through beautiful vignette-like chapters that flicker between time periods and locations, mixing past and present, Paris and Algiers. It’s an experimental form that risks becoming frustrating, but I found the short chapters page-turningly compelling. The lack of fixed time and location represents Bouraoui’s own feelings of belonging between places: “I can’t choose one country, one nationality, over the other, I’d feel I was betraying either my mother or my father.”

In the Algerian chapters, headed as ‘Remembering’, Bouraoui writes vividly of desert holidays with her mother and sister alongside the horror of political unrest and violence. Roadblocks, harassment, and murders intertwine with family anecdotes and capers with her childhood best friend Ali.

As an 18-year-old in Paris, Bouraoui begins frequenting a women-only nightclub, looking for love but too terrified to act upon her desires. In this intimately anonymous setting, she feels part of the gay community (“I like these two words, they don’t so much belong to me as own me”) but experiences disconnection from her new lesbian social circle (“The women I spend time with are my rivals, women I go out with, not my friends”). Away from the club scene, she also begins to write. These chapters–headed ‘Becoming’–are reminiscent of the Parisian chapters of The Well of Loneliness as well as the works of Qiu Miaojin in their haunting sense of alienation.

The final narrative strand offers an account of Bouraoui’s mother’s youth in a war-torn France and the barriers surrounding her cross-cultural marriage. These ‘Knowing’ chapters mix family oral history with omniscience – how much would the narrator have been told and how much has been imagined?

All Men Want to Know is an evocative, heartfelt novel that explores psychological questions of self, belonging and knowing. While it covers distressing topics, it’s ultimately a beautiful and hopeful account of coming of age while straddling opposing identities.

Content warnings: rape, sexual assault, suicide, racism, murder, war, addiction, homophobia, sexism

Carmella reviews Love Frankie by Jacqueline Wilson

Love Frankie by Jacqueline Wilson

Jacqueline Wilson was one of my favourite authors growing up. Something about her battalions of weird, bookish, tomboy protagonists and their intense friendships with other girls really appealed to me.

Looking back on her extensive oeuvre as a fully-realised lesbian adult, I began to see what that connection may have been, and I always wished that Wilson had written an explicitly sapphic character somewhere in her over-100-book career. Then came the news, earlier this year, that not only was Wilson finally going to write a book about two girls falling in love… but that she herself was in a long-term relationship with another woman! I was delighted (to say the least), and couldn’t wait to get my hands on Love Frankie.

When explaining why she hasn’t written a gay protagonist before, Jacqueline Wilson said that she writes about children with problems, and she doesn’t see “any problem whatsoever with being gay”. This is true for Love Frankie, where the protagonist’s sexuality isn’t nearly as big a deal as everything else going on in her life.

Frankie is nearly fourteen, and having a rough time of it. Her mum is chronically ill with MS, finances are tight, she’s worried about her two sisters, and their dad’s no help: he’s left them to live with his new girlfriend. Even her best friend Sammy is a source of stress now he’s decided he wants to be her boyfriend.

Wilson is always strong at writing touching, troubled families. Frankie’s dynamic with her mum and sisters is so warm and true to life. I particularly liked the youngest sister, Rowena, with her obsession for collecting Sylvanian Families – I remember a lot of children like that from my own school years! The issues of illness and divorce are treated sensitively and carefully pitched towards younger readers.

Outside of her fraught home life, Frankie’s being picked on by a group of girls at school. But then their ringleader – the pretty, cool, wealthy Sally – turns out to be not-that-bad-actually and goes from sworn enemy to close friend.

As Jacqueline Wilson novels go, so far, so typical. Then Frankie starts to like Sally as more than a friend.

This central relationship rings true as an account of first love – exciting, intense, giddy, and confusing. However, Sally isn’t particularly likeable as a love interest. She’s hot-and-cold, teasing, and sometimes cruel. I would ask what Frankie sees in her, but who hasn’t had a crush on a popular ‘mean girl’ before?

Although I enjoyed reading this novel as an adult, I know that I would have loved it as a younger teen. I’m so pleased for all the girls who will get to read this at the same age as Frankie and see themselves reflected in the pages.

Where to Start Reading Lesbian Gothic

Where to Start Reading Lesbian Gothic

Haunted mansions! Thunder and lightning! Brooding antiheroes! Women running down corridors wearing long white gowns! I love the tropes of Gothic literature: they’re campy, they’re spooky, they’re sexy. What more could you possibly want from a genre? Well, sapphic romance, obviously.

As it happens, the Gothic is a pretty gay genre to begin with. Its themes of buried secrets, psychological crisis, and the instability of social boundaries all lend themselves perfectly to queer narratives. Despite this, I’ve always found it difficult to find recommendations for specifically lesbian and bi women’s Gothic literature online. But, dear reader, you don’t need to share my plight: I’ve done the work for you! Here is a selection of ten great Gothic works with sapphic characters to get you started with the genre…

Carmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu,Carmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

A classic of 19th century Gothic literature, Carmilla is one of the earliest examples of vampire fiction. Laura and her father live in Styria in the remote Austrian countryside. When a mysterious carriage crashes outside their castle, they agree to take in one of its passengers, a frail girl named Carmilla. Laura and Carmilla are immediate friends, but as the relationship grows more and more intense, Laura’s health starts to decline and Carmilla’s to improve – almost as if Carmilla is sucking the life out of her host.

 

Rebecca by Daphne du MaurierRebecca by Daphne du Maurier

After a holiday romance with the handsome widower Max de Winter, his new bride returns with him to his country estate. Instead of being made welcome, she soon realises that her new home is ‘haunted’ by Max’s first wife, Rebecca, whose memory is kept alive by the loyal housekeeper Mrs Danvers. As the bride realises that she doesn’t know her husband at all, she starts to wonder just what happened to Rebecca. Although this isn’t an explicitly lesbian novel, it’s a cornerstone of the Lesbian Gothic: besides the heavy implication that Mrs Danvers was in love with Rebecca, the novel is also steeped with du Maurier’s repressed feelings for women – with whom she would have affairs later in her life.

The Gilda Stories by Jewelle GomezThe Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez

In 1850s Louisiana, Gilda escapes slavery and finds sanctuary with two brothel-women who also happen to be vampires. After being initiated into eternal life, Gilda spends the next 200 years living through African American history (and future), searching for community and somewhere to call home. With its exploration of race, sexuality and identity, The Gilda Stories was a completely new take on vampire fiction when it was first published in 1991, and it still feels as fresh today.

Fingersmith by Sarah WatersFingersmith by Sarah Waters

Fingersmith is the fantastic Dickensian novel behind both the BBC miniseries of the same name, and Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden. Raised amidst thieves in the slums of Victorian London, Sue Trinder is happy to help when Gentleman – a conman and family friend – calls on her with a plan. Sue will pose as a lady’s maid to help Gentleman seduce the wealthy heiress Maud Lilly. After the two are wed and Maud’s inheritance is secure, Gentleman will have her committed to an asylum and split the winnings with Sue. However, Sue grows fond of her new ‘mistress’, and things aren’t as simple as they first seemed.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley JacksonThe Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Four strangers – one of them the paranormal investigator Dr Montague – plan to stay at a notoriously haunted house, with the aim of discovering empirical proof of the supernatural. The four make friends quickly, and Eleanor, a fragile young woman with a history with poltergeists, is especially drawn to Theodora, who is fresh out of a quarrel with her female ‘roommate’. The group are faced with spooky occurrences that grow ever more sinister as the night progresses, until it seems that the house itself is plotting against them.

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara CollinsThe Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins

Frannie Langton, a servant and former slave, stands accused of murdering her employers. Although she can’t remember anything that happened on that fateful night, she knows that she couldn’t have done it – because she was in love with her mistress. Slipping between a childhood on a Jamaican sugar plantation and her domestic service in Georgian London, Frannie’s defense is her life story – a story that exposes crimes far greater than a couple of murders, committed in the name of science and empire.

The Animals at Lockwood Manor by Jane HealeyThe Animals at Lockwood Manor by Jane Healey

During the London Blitz, the Natural History Museum’s collection of taxidermied mammals are evacuated to the countryside, along with newly-promoted director Hetty Cartwright. Their new home is the creepy Lockwood Manor, presided over by the bullying Major Lockwood and his troubled daughter Lucy. Lucy walks the house at night and has nightmares of la diablesse – a devil-woman in white that haunts the manor. Despite Hetty’s burgeoning friendship with Lucy, her residence at Lockwood grows impossible when the animals start to move about on their own.

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria MachadoIn the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

Studying at the Iowa writers’ school in her late 20s, Carmen Maria Machado met ‘the woman in the dream house’ – a petite blonde Harvard grad living in a cabin in Bloomington, Indiana. What began as a passionate relationship turned sour when the woman became psychologically and physically abusive, and the ‘dream house’ became a nightmare setting. Machado recounts her own experience while also examining the history and study of abusive romantic relationships between women, in a genre-defying work that blends memoir, gothic literature, academic study, and short stories.

The Wicked Cometh by Laura CarlinThe Wicked Cometh by Laura Carlin

Against a backdrop of Georgian London, where the city’s poor inhabitants can disappear with no questions asked, Hester White is desperate to escape poverty. When she gets caught under the wheels of Calder Brock’s carriage, she seizes her chance to be taken in by his aristocratic family, including the fierce Rebekah Brock. Rebekah tutors her in the ways of gentility – although she seems interested in more than just Hester’s education. Then Hester receives a note telling her to leave before she gets hurt. Together, Rebekah and Hester begin to uncover a dark web of penny dreadful-worthy mystery and crime with Calder at its centre.

White is for Witching by Helen OyeyemiWhite is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi

In a vast house on the cliffs of Dover, twins Miranda and Eliot are in mourning for their recently-departed mother. In the wake of the tragedy, Miranda develops the eating disorder pica – where she hungers for inedible substances like chalk, dirt and plastic – and begins to hear the voices of women trapped in the walls of the house. Then one night she vanishes, leaving behind her loved ones, including her girlfriend Ore, her father Luc, and the house itself, to tell the story.

Carmella reviews Hex by Rebecca Dinerstein Knight

Hex by Rebecca Dinerstein Knight

Hex is a dark, uneasy novel about poison and desire. It follows the main character Nell, a PhD candidate in biological science, who’s expelled from Columbia after her labmate dies in an accident with plant toxins. Derailed, depressed and desperate, Nell steals the killer seeds to continue the work from a grim apartment in Red Hook. While she tries to engineer an antidote, she’s also writing a series of obsessive journals dedicated to ‘you’ – Dr. Joan Kallas, the lecturer she’s in love with.

Nell and Joan are caught up in not so much a love triangle as a love hexagon: there’s Nell’s medievalist ex-boyfriend Tom; her glamorous best friend Mishti; Mishti’s boyfriend Carlo; and Joan’s creepy husband Barry. Despite its botanical backdrop, the novel spends most of its time focusing on these tangled relationships, and the webs of desire between them are just about as toxic as the seeds germinating in Nell’s apartment.

If it sounds incestuous, claustrophobic and messy – it is. There’s a sense of ‘dark academia’ in Dinerstein Knight’s portrayal of campus politics. If you enjoy novels where everyone’s brainy and unpleasant (think The Secret History or Bunny) then this is one for you.

Nell herself is a compelling character to spend time with, not despite her unpleasantness but because of it. It’s always refreshing to read female characters who are allowed to be grotty. Not showering for days? Keeping a mushy banana in your pocket? Having toenail fungus? That’s feminism! Well, maybe not, but it makes for an interesting narrator. Nell’s world view is – for lack of a better word – weird. Her ‘journals’ are studded with surprising images, odd tangents, and strange yearnings: “I wished I could carve you a pumpkin”; “I wanted immediately, with my whole self, to be your cat”; “I thought it might be pleasant to be one layer of uncolored nail polish lying in rest over your fingernails”. I loved this depiction of desire – at once so unique and yet completely familiar.

The novel interrogates the idea of desire throughout. What do the characters want for themselves? For each other? From each other? Nell doesn’t always know what she wants, but she is always wanting, so that the act of wanting almost becomes an activity in its own right. After all, what’s more important to her: Joan, or the act of wanting Joan? As Nell wonders aloud to Mishti, “Which is fuller, the longing or the union?” Whatever the answer is for Nell personally, it’s certainly the longing that makes this novel a success.

Carmella reviews The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Set in 17th century Norway during a time of witch trials, The Mercies is Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s first book for adults. It was all over book Twitter earlier this year, and the more I heard, the more excited I was to read it. Beautiful cover? Check. Witches? Check. Sapphism? Check. What more could I want from a book?

When a storm kills the fishermen of Vardø – an island town in the north of Norway – its women are left behind to fend for themselves. 20-year-old Maren must learn to take care of ‘men’s work’ such as fishing and building, while grieving for her lost father, brother, and fiance.

At the same time, King Christian IV is introducing laws against witchcraft, particularly targeting the Sámi people indigenous to the north. This leads to the appointment of Scottish witch-hunter Absolom Cornet, who installs himself in Vardø along with his new wife, Ursa, disturbing the budding matriarchy and stirring up a frenzy of superstition.

I didn’t know much about the context beforehand, but Millwood Hargrave writes so immersively about the era and politics that it’s easy enough to follow along without any prior knowledge. Domestic scenes of baking bread, cleaning the household, or visiting neighbours are all crammed with historical details which bring Vardø to life. It helps that Ursa is an outsider both to the village and to domestic work, as we can learn exposition naturally through her eyes.

When Ursa realises she’s unprepared to run a household, she engages Maren to teach her the basics. What ensues is an indescribably slow-burn romance. Now, I certainly enjoy a bit of repression in my fiction, but I have to admit that after 300 pages without a single kiss I did start to grow impatient! Instead, we get chapters upon chapters of accidental hand-brushes and lingering eye contact – which are at least very beautifully and believably written.

Alongside a sapphic romance, I was also promised witches. Instead, Millwood Hargrave writes about innocent women unjustly persecuted for showing independence, defying gender roles, or simply (as is the case for Maren’s sister-in-law) being Sámi. It wasn’t what I had expected from the blurb, but it was a sobering reminder of the true history of witch trials.

The Mercies is a story about female resistance in a patriarchal society, and about the fear felt by men in power when faced with a strong woman. However, it is not a happy ending for the women of Vardø. I don’t want to include too many spoilers, but I do want to forewarn you that [Spoilers, highlight to read:] Maren and Ursa don’t get to live happily ever after, and there is a main character death at the novel’s close [End spoilers]. It’s a depressing (although probably realistic) finale.

While the book didn’t offer the ‘OMG lesbian witches’ escapism that I was hoping for when I first picked it up, it’s a well-crafted story that brings light to women’s histories and speaks to some very modern themes.

CONTENT WARNINGS: Sexual violence, genocide, suicide, racism, torture, miscarriage.

Carmella reviews The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins

“How can I confess what I don’t believe I’ve done?”

It’s 1826, and Frannie Langton is standing trial for the murder of her employers, the Benhams. She can’t remember a thing from that night, but she’s certain she didn’t do it – because she was in love with Mrs Benham. As she awaits sentencing, Frannie makes use of her time in Newgate prison to write her confessions.

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins is a Gothic murder mystery/romance reminiscent of Alias Grace or The Paying Guests, by way of Beloved and Wide Sargasso Sea. It takes us from a Jamaican plantation, where Frannie – a mixed-race house slave – is taught to read by her bored mistress, to a London townhouse, where she works as a maid for the beautiful Marguerite Benham. As Frannie writes of her emotionally-charged affair with Marguerite, she also reveals the traumatic secrets of her childhood, unravelling the two time periods side by side.

The concept alone would have been enough to win me over: it meets all my literary tick-boxes, and how often do you get to see a Black lesbian protagonist in mainstream historical fiction? (As Collins says, she was inspired to write about Frannie after questioning “why hadn’t a Black woman been the star of her own Gothic romance?”)

But alongside that, Sara Collins is a fantastic character writer. She crafts a strong and distinctive voice for Frannie, who makes a compellingly unreliable narrator, veering from intimate truth-telling to coy amnesia so you’re never sure if you should trust her. It takes a confident author to pull off a ‘whodunit’ where the main character is both the lead suspect and the lead detective, but Collins sustains the mystery to the end.

It’s important with historical fiction to transport your readers into the time period, and this is another place where Collins is adept. Her descriptions of life on a plantation and in 19th century London are beautifully vivid. They’re also clearly the product of careful research, with events and characters like Olaudah ‘Laddie’ Cambridge (a former servant of the Benhams now turned celebrity boxer) inspired by true history – in this case Bill Richmond. Although topics of racial, sexual and gender identity are often considered a modern preoccupation, Collins embeds them seamlessly into her historical setting, where they seem perfectly at home.

The Confessions of Frannie Langton is an intense, twisty read, which would appeal to anyone interested in Gothic romance, historical fiction, or a good mystery. I would give one word of caution, which is that the novel contains multiple depictions of gore and violence. It’s not for the faint-hearted (or weak-stomached) – but if you’re a fan of the penny dreadful genre then it’s perfect for you!

CONTENT WARNINGS: Slavery, racism, miscarriage, rape mentions, murder, violence

Carmella reviews The Animals at Lockwood Manor by Jane Healey

The Animals at Lockwood Manor by Jane Healey

The Animals at Lockwood Manor is an atmospheric gothic novel from debut author Jane Healey. Set during World War II in an English country house, it contains all the genre’s staples – supernatural disturbances, hidden rooms, spooky dreams, dark family secrets – along with a good helping of sapphic romance. If you’ve ever read Jane Eyre and thought “OK, but what if Jane fell in love with Bertha Mason instead?”, then this is one for you!

When the Natural History Museum’s collections are evacuated during the London Blitz, a menagerie of taxidermied mammals are sent to Lockwood Manor – along with their newly-promoted director, Hetty Cartwright. What with the manor’s imperfect storage conditions, the creepy atmosphere, the unwelcoming servants, and Major Lockwood’s sexist arrogance, Hetty would have enough trouble keeping her collection in order. But then some of the animals start to go missing.

While Hetty investigates who’s responsible for her missing charges, she grows closer to the Major’s delicate daughter, Lucy. Lucy’s mother and grandmother both passed away recently in a horrible car accident, causing Lucy’s childhood nightmares and sleepwalking to relapse. In her dreams, she wanders the house, desperately searching for a room that doesn’t exist, and remembering her mother’s warnings about la diablesse – a devil-woman in white who haunts the manor.

The romance between Hetty and Lucy is slow to build, and it’s touching to watch them slowly discover their attraction to one another. Healey is a master at ‘show don’t tell’ when it comes to her characters’ feelings.

And how could I review this without mentioning the eponymous animals? The taxidermied collection in Hetty’s care are characters in their own right: the truant panther, the faded hummingbirds, the towering polar bear. Hetty worries about them constantly, and you feel invested in their welfare too.

Then there are the human animals. Throughout the novel, Hetty compares other characters to the creatures in her care: Lucy is a cat, the housekeeper is a Rüppell’s fox, one of the maids is a chipmunk. This adds a fun flare to character descriptions, but also reflects that people can be just as beastly as animals – particularly Hetty’s host, Major Lockwood.

The Major is a wonderfully dislikable antagonist. He reminds me of gothic leading men like Rochester, Heathcliffe, or Maxim de Winter. Except that instead of asking us to believe he’s actually a romantic love interest (despite his patriarchal beliefs, violent temper, and mysteriously dead wife), Healey lets him be the villain of the piece. As someone who always wants gothic heroines to realise how awful their leading men are, I appreciate a novel that finally gives me what I’m looking for!

I’m a big fan of gothic literature, so I was delighted by Healey’s inclusion of so many classic gothic elements. If there’s a gothic trope you can think of, it’s probably in this book. Despite this, the story doesn’t feel predictable or formulaic – the tropes are thrown in more like nods to Healey’s predecessors. You can feel the influence of Jane Eyre (fun fact: Healey was named after her), Rebecca, The Haunting of Hill House, Angela Carter, The Woman in White – and probably a load more that I’ve missed on my first reading.

If you’re a fan of gothic or historical fiction – particularly authors like Sarah Waters, Laura Purcell, and Daphne du Maurier – then I would highly recommend The Animals at Lockwood Manor. It’s a tense, claustrophobic read, full of opulent descriptions and chilling twists. The novel is published on 5 March by Mantle in the UK and 10 March by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the US.

Carmella reviews Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin

Notes of a Crocodile

Trigger warning: this review discusses suicide.

What do crocodiles and lesbians have in common? Plenty of things, as I learned from Qiu Miaojin’s Notes of a Crocodile.

The novel, first published in Chinese in 1994, is a fragmented, broody, and often puzzling coming-of-age tale. The main story is told through journal entries by our narrator, a college student nicknamed Lazi.

In her first year of study, Lazi begins a turbulent relationship with a fellow student, Shui Ling. Although she knows her love for other women is innate, Lazi is filled with self-loathing: she sees her identity as a crime. As a result, she sabotages the relationship to avoid confronting intimacy.

Over the remainder of her college years, Lazi returns obsessively to her experience with Shui Ling, which she sees as her one great love – but only great because it ended before it could become really real. In the meantime, she forms other relationships – some romantic, some sexual, some platonic – with a variety of queer people.

Notes of a Crocodile isn’t a plot-heavy book. Rather, it’s about the introspective development of a character. Lazi is romantic but melancholic, self-absorbed but self-hating. She’s likeable, but she can also be a bit much!

Lazi’s main quest, as I see it, is to learn how to love. More specifically: how to love as a lesbian. With no societal script to guide her, it’s a messy process of trial and error. Her experiences are mirrored by her friends’ relationships, which can be seen as various models for how queer love can be. They’re a vibrant cast of characters, from a loud-and-proud bisexual gangster and his depressed journalist ex-boyfriend, to a try-hard overachiever and her slacker guitarist sweetheart. Getting to know them is one of my favourite parts of the book.

But don’t get me wrong: none of them any good at love either! Lazi has to learn from their bad examples. As she says towards the end, “On how to love well: instead of embracing a romantic ideal, you must confront the meaning of every great love that has shattered, shard by shard.”

And what about the crocodile? Well, it crops up in a series of satirical vignettes that break up Lazi’s narrative – which is much-needed, given how bleak her story can be.

The crocodile has lived its whole life wearing a human suit, trying to fit into a human-normative society. Despite its desperate longing to connect with its own kind, because all other crocodiles also wear human suits, the crocodile can’t be sure that it’s ever met another one for real. Does this sound like a familiar experience? It certainly resonated with my teenage memories!

While society hates and fears crocodiles, it’s also fascinated with them. During the course of the novel, Taiwan’s media is whipped up into a crocodile-frenzy, obsessed with finding out every detail of these outsiders who live among the normal populace. Headlines scream: “BREAKING NEWS: CREAM PUFFS ARE A CROCODILE FAVOURITE!” Should the crocodile feel flattered, or fetishised?

Oddly, although these crocodile sections are humorous, they were also the ones that touched me the most.

Around the time of the book’s first publication, lesbians were under a similar scrutiny in the Taiwanese media. That same year, a TV journalist secretly filmed patrons at a lesbian bar, resulting in many being outed without their consent. In a separate incident, two female students (who attended the same high school where Miaojin had once studied) committed a double-suicide, leading to media speculation that they had been in a lesbian relationship. Medical experts and psychologists were called to comment and analyse the girls’ motives. As Miaojin satirises, “various crocodile experts had begun to crop up” – all of them spouting contradictory pseudo-scientific nonsense.

From the outset, I was expecting this to be a sad book. I’ve read Miaojin’s other novel, Last Words from Montmartre, which is an extended suicide note. Miaojin herself committed suicide in 1995, at the age of 26. So I was unsurprised by how self-destructive the characters in Notes of a Crocodile are.

However, I was surprised by how defiant the book felt as well. Yes, Lazi is miserable, but she keeps on trying to build human connections, to find a love that will last. I didn’t come away feeling miserable. Or, at least, not too miserable. And I enjoyed its puzzles and parallels, the way you have to pick apart metaphors and pop culture references to understand what’s being said. I still don’t understand it completely – but that’s part of what makes me like it.

Carmella reviews Gentleman Jack: a Biography of Anne Lister by Angela Steidele

Gentleman Jack by Angela Steidele

Earlier this year, HBO and the BBC treated us to Suranne Jones swaggering across the screen in butch Victorian get-up, playing the character of Anne Lister. The first season of Gentleman Jack follows just a segment of Anne’s life starting in 1832, as she woos her future life-partner, Ann Walker.

While I loved the show, it left me wanting to know more. What was Anne Lister really like? Who was she before 1832, and how does her story end? This led me to pick up Angela Steidele’s biography (also titled Gentleman Jack, which was an insulting nickname for Anne used by the townspeople of Halifax) to find out all about her for myself.

In case you haven’t come across her before, Anne Lister was a Regency era landowner from West Yorkshire. She’s now remembered as ‘the first modern lesbian’, mostly thanks to the extensive diaries she left behind, in which she recorded everything from her opinions on the pressing political issues of the time to the minutiae of everyday life – and, encoded in her secret ‘crypt hand’, explicit details of her numerous sexual affairs with other women.

These diaries run to over four million words, but thankfully Steidele has condensed them into a very readable 338 pages for those of us who don’t quite have enough time to manage them in full! Gentleman Jack follows Anne’s life in chronological order, separated into chapters named after her girlfriends – which is an entertaining touch.

As a history fan, I found the delve into the life of an unconventional Regency woman compelling, and welcomed the chance to learn more about the era. One of my favourite sections was the story of Anne’s first girlfriend, Eliza Raine. Eliza was the mixed race child of an English man and an Indian woman, born in Madras and raised in Yorkshire. When the Regency era is so often portrayed as exclusively white (think of most adaptations of Austen and the Brontës), hearing Eliza’s story is proof that this wasn’t the case.

Ultimately, it wasn’t a happy ending for Eliza, who was committed to a mental asylum. Steidele even suggests that Eliza may have been a model for Charlotte Brontë’s character Mrs Rochester – the ‘madwoman in the attic’ of Jane Eyre – as the asylum was not far from the Brontës’ home in Haworth.

Also very interesting is the final part of the biography, following Anne and Ann’s travels around Europe and Russia in 1839-40. Anne’s travel diary gives a fascinating description of every stopping point as it was in the mid-19th Century. It also reveals that Anne was impatient with Ann, argued with her frequently, pushed her into travelling further than she wanted, and even flirted with other women in front of her!

During the trip, Anne developed a fatal fever. She died in Georgia in 1840, at the age of 49, and Ann dutifully returned her body to be buried in Halifax.

What I enjoy most about the biography is this ‘warts and all’ approach to Anne’s life. It doesn’t shy away from Anne’s flaws; as Steidele puts it, “Anne Lister was a beast of a woman” – and all the more interesting for it. She lied to and manipulated her lovers, didn’t have much regard for other people’s feelings, and was a staunch Tory (which counts as a flaw in my book). At the same time, she was a remarkably intelligent and competent businesswoman, extensively well-read, well-travelled, and had a curious scientific mind.

Even when you disagree with Anne you can’t help but like her, and you can understand the allure that drew so many women to her. As Anne herself put it in 1816, “the girls liked me & had always liked me”. And we always will like her, I’m sure!