A Lush Bisexual Vampire Gothic: Thirst by Marina Yuszczuk

the cover of 
Thirst by Marina Yuszczuk

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Thirst by Marina Yuszczuk, originally published in 2020 and translated this year by Heather Cleary, is a dramatic and lushly gothic novel about two women who a string of circumstances going back over a century bring together in modern day Buenos Aires. Yuszczuk revels in sensual, physical details as she describes how a vampire from Europe emigrates to Buenos Aires when she realizes she can no longer remain undetected in Europe. Decades later, a modern woman struggling with the realities of her mother’s terminal illness and the ongoing effects of grief inherits a key and sets off a collision of destinies. Thirst is a fairly short read (or compact audiobook in my case), and I had a great time because Thirst is a vampire book that revels in being a vampire book. There’s blood and violence and obsession, and at one point a priest is defiled purely out of spite. It’s a sensuous romp, and perfect for heating up an already hot summer.

Thirst, as the title states, is concerned with thirst, both the physical and sexual.  The vampire narrator is constantly concerned with her physical thirst for blood and with avoiding vampire hunters that are trying to stop her from satisfying that thirst. It’s interesting to me that she both acknowledges that it’s natural for humans to want to stop her from feeding on them and also asserts that she did not ask to be made into a vampire and that it’s natural for her to want to sustain herself, acknowledging the eternal competition between the two. There’s also tension as she is first forced to flee vampire hunters in Europe and then contend with the developing world of forensic science linking her to her victims. Thirst asks, how do you satisfy your thirst in a world increasingly capable of stopping you? 

At the same time, the vampire narrator is also concerned with her more metaphorical thirst.  Living outside of society, and thus societal strictures, she revels in her sexuality, taking what she wants whenever she has the whim. While several of her early encounters are with men—who see her as a helpless lone woman they are taking advantage of even as she uses them—she does not shy away from her physical attraction towards women. Even before she meets the modern narrator, she enjoys an interlude with a washer woman who shows her where she can wash her clothes in private. As they undressed together, I enjoyed that the vampire’s physical appreciation of Justine was untainted with any internal hesitation or regrets—as someone who fed intimately on people’s final moments, the vampire felt free to enjoy any physical pleasure she wanted without bias.

The modern narrator she eventually meets up with, on the other hand, is wracked with grief, indecision, and the expectations of others. Her mother is in the final stages of a horrible, untreatable terminal illness that slowly leaves her more and more paralyzed. As her mother disappears bit by bit under medical paraphernalia and pain, she has to grapple with her day to day life and her young son on top of grief and emotionally-draining caregiving. And as she watches her mother’s choices disappear to be made for her by others, the intensity with which the vampire exists attracts her, even as she is startled and alarmed by the violence. Their immediate attraction to each other is electric and visceral—almost feral. Although most of the book was concerned with their individual journeys, I found the chemistry of their meeting compelling, and the ending satisfying. 

In conclusion, Thirst is a lush gothic vampire novel that takes lingers on the physical realities of being a vampire, the clash between the vitality of life as an individual and the grind of the realities of existence, and the sensuality that is there for the taking if one dares. Yuszczuk keys into a rich gothic and vampiric tradition without overly lingering on logistics or greater vampire lore. This is a book about the journey and the moment. If you love vampires, Latin American gothic, or just some hot summer defiling of norms, Thirst would be a perfect add to your to-read list. It’s a quick but hot read and a great time. 

Maggie reviews A Scatter of Light by Malinda Lo

the cover of A Scatter of Light by Malinda Lo

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I was ecstatic when I heard that Malinda Lo was writing a loosely connected follow up to Last Night at the Telegraph Cub because Last Night at the Telegraph Club is a hugely important lesbian coming of age novel set in 1950s San Francisco Chinatown that A) I wish I had had access to as a teenager and B) I’m so happy the youths have access to today. In A Scatter of Light, Lo attempts to recreate that same sense of teenage discovery and feelings in a more recent decade and succeeds wildly. I listened to the audiobook and had a fantastic experience. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Lo is unparalleled at invoking the teenage experience, where your feelings are huge and undefined and you don’t yet have the life experience to have perspective.

In A Scatter of Light, when recently graduated Aria West arrives at her eccentric artist grandmother Joan’s house in California for the summer, she’s upset that she’s not spending the summer on Martha’s Vineyard with her friends as planned and doesn’t expect the summer to come to much. But Joan, rather than judging her for the high school scandal that landed Aria in California, encourages her to pursue her interests, interrogate her own perspectives, and look at things in new ways, leading Aria to both connect with her past and push her boundaries with art while she’s there. Aria’s summer is further derailed by Joan’s gardener Steph, an aspiring musician, who invites Aria into a community of working class lesbians and queer events that Aria had previously never thought about. What started out as just killing time until she could leave for college turns into a life-changing summer as Aria learns several new things about herself. Dyke marches, art history, music festivals – Lo balances the nostalgia-drenched coming of age experience with real emotion for a surprisingly solid teenage narrative.

What I loved best about this book is that Aria’s beautiful emotional queer journey happens with all the grace of getting tackled by a football player and all the emotional subtlety of a fireworks show. It’s perfect and wonderful and great fun to read because Aria feels and loves with all the explosive power of a teenager who doesn’t have the experience to put her emotions into context. And many times her narration had me screaming with glee and with the experience of an adult perspective. It was an absolute blast to watch Aria have her hot lesbian summer, I had the most fun time listening to the audiobook.

Alas for Aria, not everything is as simple as getting flirted with by several lesbians and slowly realizing her feelings are not just friendship. For one thing her grandmother Joan, her ostensible reason for being in California to begin with, encourages her to explore art, something that Aria had never considered but starts mixing with her passion for astronomy and her history with her deceased grandfather. Her mother delivers some family news that sends Aria into a minor tailspin. (spoilers) And Steph, the object of Aria’s newly awakened queer desire, comes with an established relationship, albeit one that is making both halves of it miserable. It all comes to a head when Joan’s physical condition abruptly worsens, bringing Aria’s summer of awakening to an emotional close. (end spoilers)

A Scatter of Light is a dramatic, and fun ode to early 2000’s queer culture, coming of age, and teenage feelings, and I am so, so glad that youths today can just pick it off of any shelf. The characters feel deeply, the decisions are messy, and the open mic nights are queer. And journeying along with Aria while she had a wild summer awakening was the highlight of my fall. I appreciated the masterful way Lo handled themes of growing up and reaching new emotional maturity and dealing with life’s complicated circumstances. I especially appreciated that the summer remained what it says in the title – a scatter of light, a transient experience, a bubble of time that changed everyone involved but was not a lifetime commitment at 18. This book was amazing to read as an adult, would have absolutely given me new thoughts and perspective if I had had it available as a teen, and would be a great addition to your to-read list.