I read three books this month: incidentally, two lesbian novels: Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, and Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown (sapphically suggestive titles all round…) as well as a science-fiction classic, Solaris by Stanislaw Lem.
Fingersmith by Sarah Waters ★★★★☆
This is a long-un but it’s a good-un. It’s a drawn out, twisted lesbian novel set in the 19th century, the story focusing around two 17 year old girls, one who becomes the other’s maid under false pretences, as part of a larger plot to steal the other’s fortune. The beginning is
slightly slow, and all a bit Oliver Twist, which isn’t really my taste. However, it slowly builds up to the end of part one where there is a shocking twist – and I mean shocking. From that point on it becomes darker and more complicated, and I couldn’t stop reading. It’s all about betrayal, trust, unreliable narratives and second guessing your original thoughts. The narrative is not realistic…but if you’re looking for escapism I think Waters sets the tone and paces the book really well. Persevere through part one, it is worth it!
If you’re looking for a classic lesbian romance, this might not be the book for you; it doesn’t really focus on the characters’ identities, and their relationship is mostly overshadowed by the wider narrative arch. However, I liked it and made me want to read more of Sarah Waters – I have put Tipping the Velvet on my to-read list.
Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown ★★★★★
I loved this book! I read it in two sittings, on the train to and from Newcastle to London. Really easy to read. The protagonist and narrator is Molly, and we follow her from tomboy childhood to early adulthood, and her adventures on the East Coast of the USA. I thought it was an accurate and relatable depiction of queer female sexuality, the growth of it, and how it is tied up with identity. I actually found it pretty empowering. A lesbian book where the lesbian is not a victim! Or dies at the end! She is self-sufficient and happy! There is an uplifting ending!
It is definitely a coming-of-age novel, and I like that. It’s funnily written, and I would totally recommend it to any lesbian, bi, or pan women. Actually, any women I think would enjoy it – it’s really accessible fiction about queer sexuality, friendship, and growing up.
Solaris by Stanislaw Lem ★★★★☆
Wow. This was intense. I actually felt quite unsettled a lot of the time while reading this. I knew about the premise of the book before reading it; a man travels to a space station orbiting an ocean planet called Solaris, only to find that flesh-and-blood replicas of his dead wife keep reappearing. The protagonist, Kelvin, is a psychologist, sent to the station to analyse the other members of the team, who are suffering from the same affliction, which he initially assumes to be hallucinations. After proving to himself that he is in fact not in a dream nor hallucination through complex calculations, he and the other members of the crew have to work out what to do about the figures from their respective pasts who have appeared on the ship.
What I didn’t know was how Lem creates this concept of the alien which I’d never considered; the oceanic surface is in fact some kind of life form, and humanity attempts to ‘make contact’ with it over a number of years. However, its responses seem unreliable, and its true nature remains elusive. Is it conscious, sentient, intelligent? Is it similar to a gigantic amoeba, or is it more like a multi-celled fluid creature? Is it a god? The difference between the ocean and any form of life we recognise on Earth is vast; Lem made me reconsider the commonly assumed idea of an alien being some variation of plant or animal.
Solaris definitely doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test; the only female character who speaks is Rheya, the reincarnation of Kelvin’s deceased wife. For the most part, she is vulnerable, confused and dependent. However, from a male author in the 1960s, it could be worse. Lem is no Ursula Le Guin when it comes to progressive attitudes to gender, but I didn’t have a massive problem with the book. Overall I found it an intense and compelling read, very original and a great work of sci-fi.
Some book covers from the 60s which I really like – much cooler than my George Clooney film edition!