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Bearly A Lady by Cassandra Khaw

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Zelda McCartney (almost) has it all: a badass superhero name, an awesome vampire roommate, and her dream job at a glossy fashion magazine (plus the clothes to prove it).

The only issue in Zelda’s almost-perfect life? The uncontrollable need to transform into a werebear once a month.

Just when Zelda thinks things are finally turning around and she lands a hot date with Jake, her high school crush and alpha werewolf of Kensington, life gets complicated. Zelda receives an unusual work assignment from her fashionable boss: play bodyguard for devilishly charming fae nobleman Benedict (incidentally, her boss’s nephew) for two weeks. Will Zelda be able to resist his charms long enough to get together with Jake? And will she want to?

Because true love might have been waiting around the corner the whole time in the form of Janine, Zelda’s long-time crush and colleague.

What’s a werebear to do?
~~~~~
From the terrible dad-joke of the title through the back copy, I was always going to be interested in Bearly A Lady, even if it hadn’t been by Cassandra Khaw and put out by the Book Smugglers as part of an initiative I want to support. As it was, those factors all aligned beautifully, making this a very easy purchase decision…

Bearly A Lady is a slightly odd book; it’s chick lit, something Khaw discusses in her essay in the back about her influences in writing it, but it’s also very much not: it’s almost a send-up of chick lit in the way it uses the tropes of that genre and the conventions that it is playing with. Simultaneously, it’s subverting and embracing urban fantasy; whereas much UF is about a mystery or a supernatural threat, Bearly A Lady is about finding a date, and brings in other tropes of the genre along the way to that goal. What results is something that should be a light, frothy read, that carries far more substance than it should.

Bearly A Lady takes a lot onto its shoulders, not least of which is fatphobia; much of Zelda’s character, and her interactions with the world around her, are driven by reactions to her size. As a werebear, Zelda is a large woman – impressively, powerfully large, in her eyes and those of the reader, disgustingly fat to many background figures. Khaw excels in drawing out different manifestations of fatphobia, from treatment in restaurants and on public transport to casual comments from those around one, whilst also maintaining Zelda’s awareness of her size and a brilliant fat-positive attitude in the narrative.

That strength of empathy in the depiction of fatphobia carries over more broadly to the way Khaw writes Zelda. Bearly A Lady is one woman’s story, very much so; Khaw brings a sensitive and intelligent hand to Zelda’s issues with romantic anxiety, distress over competing emotional attachments and affections, and especially her (rather strong) crush on co-worker Janine. Zelda pops off the page beautifully, from her very first appearance through to the final line of her voice signing off at the end of the book; Khaw really brings her to life. The rest of the cast vary largely depending on gender; the women are all brought to life quite fully and well, even those who only appear briefly getting a strong backstory. The men, on the other hand, come off less well; the three romantic entanglements of Zelda are all, in different ways, creeps, and two-dimensional creeps, and Khaw doesn’t waste her time on giving them more characterisation than that, a powerful decision in contrast to too much (especially genre) fiction which emphasises its male characters at the expense of women.

As a genre, romance often gets a lot of criticism for the way it treats consent, and Bearly A Lady is very actively engaged in that criticism. Khaw treats consent seriously, not just in sex but in discourse generally, and anything that pushes the boundaries of consent is clearly inappropriate and problematised as such; this isn’t handled in a moralistic way, but as something that is simply part of the story and part of Zelda’s life. It crops up at work, in her social life, and inevitably in her romantic and sexual life; and the way characters deal with issues of consent is a key marker of whether we should sympathise with them or not, the way Khaw writes.

Khaw is generally strongest at character work; the plot of Bearly A Lady feels slightly like a series of anecdotes that she wanted to work into the novella, strung together a little haphazardly. The story goes from a to b adequately, but with a series of jump cuts and coincidental happenings that really frustrate. Many individual scenes are beautiful little moments that stand alone and crystalise all sorts of things out of the rest of the story; however, Bearly A Lady falls down on flowing between them. There’s a kind of disconnect that makes it feel like the novella was written as a series of stories, not a single narrative, and the joins aren’t quite smooth.

Finally, it would be a major omission not to discuss the humour that is a key component of Bearly A Lady. Khaw’s sense of humour is an incredibly important component in her work; the title onwards, this novella is no exception, and has a number of different forms of it. One of the most significant is the wry aside, such as her description of small talk as “the last bastion of the beleaguered British person”; these moments of cutting insight are delivered with a light tone that really works.

Bearly A Lady isn’t a perfect book, but it is one I heartily recommend, not just for its politics and the deft way Khaw works them in, but also for the absolutely brilliant characterisation and flashes of humour throughout the story.

Disclaimer: Both the author, Cassandra Khaw, and the publishers, the Book Smugglers, of this novella are friends of mine.

If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write by contributing to my Patreon.

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