San Francisco in 1940 is a haven for the unconventional. Tourists flock to the cities within the city: the Magic City of the World’s Fair on an island created of artifice and illusion; the forbidden city of Chinatown, a separate, alien world of exotic food and nightclubs that offer “authentic” experiences, straight from the pages of the pulps; and the twilight world of forbidden love, where outcasts from conventional society can meet.
Six women find their lives as tangled with each other’s as they are with the city they call home. They discover love and danger on the borders where magic, science, and art intersect.
Inspired by the pulps, film noir, and screwball comedy, Passing Strange is a story as unusual and complex as San Francisco itself from World Fantasy Award winning author Ellen Klages.
Passing Strange is a bit of an odd duck in the Tor.com novella line up: so far everything I’ve read from them has been very much core genre, and I’ve read most of the line up, at least one installment in each series. Passing Strange is a very different beast, although one still very much in line with the rest of its author’s (fêted) ouevre…
As we all know, being queer was taboo in the 1940s in America, even in liberal bastions like San Francisco, the city to which every black sheep ran; Passing Strange is all about that experience, about being a queer woman in that period – and about different ways of being a queer woman in the period. Klages assembles a small ensemble cast to show us multiple different intersecting oppressions – the Japanese-American Helen Young, dealing with anti-Japanese racism in an America only a few years away from war with Japan; the disinherited upper-class Emily Netterfield, who performs drag; pulp cover-artist Loretta Haskel (misgendered by later ‘experts’ in the field, of course); and more. Each woman sparkles brightly and beautifully with a vivacity that feels something like a Hollywood glamour film; they leap off the page brightly, and even in their quieter, more domestic moments, they have a kind of shine.
It’s beautiful writing and character realisation, and the way that Klages developes the relationships between the women across the course of Passing Strange is slow and very human: friendships formed in a single meeting, a social gathering of Sapphic sistren, out of which comes a tangle of friendships, relationships, and events. Things move quickly and slowly by turn, beautifully developing; Klages writes with a sensitive, emotionally deft hand about exploring one’s own and each other’s feelings in the early days of a relationship, as well as the comfort and familiarity of the latter stages of one. The plot really takes a backstage to the relationship; indeed, the plot is the relationship, really, with a few events that add tangles to it, but even there everything is centred on relationships, mainly that between Haskel and Emily.
Klages isn’t writing history, but she is writing realism; Passing Strange spends a certain amount of time on looking at the effects of the strictures of the day, and what those strictures were. Things like the three-garment test (of whether women were breaking the law by wearing men’s clothing), the police attitude to gay establishments, and general social attitudes; Klages is far from sympathetic to these bigotries, but she is sympathetic to the women who have to deal with them, and there’s a beautiful critique, worked in throughout the narrative, of the way heteronormative society tries to force queers into the closet.
All this history is surrounded by a wonderful frame story of Helen in her old age, in the contemporary world; it’s a bittersweet story, but also pulls cackles from the reader, as Klages ensures people get their comeuppance, as Passing Strange deals out appropriate ends and ensures some rather fun loose ends are tied up – and points out certain modern hypocrisies, to boot. It’s a framing story that really drives home the magical-realist elements of the novel, which are essential to the ending but for the rest of it are just a little extra flavour Klages adds beautifully and, seemingly, purely for the whimsy of it.
Passing Strange is a beautiful, wonderful gem of a story, a lesbian romance that really feels sweet and gentle and happy; Klages has crafted a real joy of a story. And if that weren’t enough, there’s a Diego Rivera cameo, so how can you resist?
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