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The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander

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In the early years of the 20th century, a group of female factory workers in Newark, New Jersey slowly died of radiation poisoning. Around the same time, an Indian elephant was deliberately put to death by electricity in Coney Island.

These are the facts.

Now these two tragedies are intertwined in a dark alternate history of rage, radioactivity, and injustice crying out to be righted. Prepare yourself for a wrenching journey that crosses eras, chronicling histories of cruelty both grand and petty in search of meaning and justice.
~~~~~
Brooke Bolander’s work has garnished any number of nominations, including multiple Locus, Hugo, and Nebula awards, among others. The Only Harmless Great Thing is her first solo volume; a slim novella out of Tor.com, it’s already picked up a lot of interesting buzz and an excellent marketing campaign… but does the novella bear out the speculation?

The Only Harmless Great Thing is a very odd book; it marries together alternate history with a science fictional future, in two parallel narratives, with a third, folkloric deep-history narrative running alongside those two. Bolander’s choices of narratives are not pleasant ones. The Only Harmless Great Thing is the story of an elephant, Topsy, brought with a little alternate history into the story of Regan, a Radium Girl. In Bolander’s world, elephants are discovered to have language and a degree of sentience in the 1880s, and so when the effects of radium were discovered, US Radium brought elephants in to paint the watches – one of whom is Topsy. In a parallel narrative, much later, Kat is trying to persuade elephants to allow humans to make them glow near nuclear waste dumps as a lasting warning about the presence of radiation, as a ten-thousand-year warning sign.

Bolander slips between the different narratives, registers, and narrators of The Only Harmless Great Thing with a skillful grace and ease that ties the whole thing together; the voices are very distinct, and that helps to distinguish between the stories as we slip between them. At times, it can be a little confusing for a few lines, but on the whole which narrative Bolander has the reader in rapidly becomes clear. The alternate and future histories are intertwined seamlessly with reality, and on the whole their revelation is well done; there are moments Bolander relies on knowledge that she hasn’t given the audience yet, but they’re few and far between.

This is a sparsely characterised novella; The Only Harmless Great Thing has a grand total of nine characters, which includes two pachyderms, one character who only speaks once and that through a post-mortem letter, an interpreter, a supervisor, an academic, a corporate executive, and a bitter Radium Girl. Of these, three are at various times viewpoint characters, and the rest appear only briefly; Bolander doesn’t make their characters much more than the flat necessities for the advancement of the plot, but her three core characters, those whose viewpoints we follow, are far better realised.

Each has a very unique voice and thought process, from the slangy dialect of Regan through to the mythopoetic style of thought of Topsy and the straightforwardly modern Kat. The Only Harmless Great Thing does a fantastic job of showing how Topsy’s and Regan’s lives parallel each other and how their struggles with forces outside and larger than themselves change them. There is a strong streak of radical politics on display in the work, and a class anger, that Bolander infuses with a kind of bleak despair at the state of the treatment of the working classes and of nature; and the way she uses that and filters it through her characters is incredibly powerful. The problem is Kat; Bolander’s treatment of her is uneven, and her character veers sharply between profoundly empathetic and profoundly disconnected, growing from one to the other and back again, and without any real sense of who she is as a person outside the project she proposed.

Finally, and almost without characters, is the deep-history myth-narrative that runs alongside these two core narratives. Bolander tells this in something akin to the style of a Just So story; and her style for these sections is absolutely beautiful and perfect, and the story itself is dark, moving, and painful. The Only Harmless Great Thing takes this extra piece of the jigsaw and moves, suddenly, from a two dimensional to a three dimensional puzzle, a complex narrative of interlocking parts with multiple messages; it’s only at the end that the relevance of this story becomes obvious to the others, in a very neat bit of writing.

The Only Harmless Great Thing isn’t a perfect novella, but it is a fantastic one; Bolander’s continues to go from strange, dark strength to dark, strange strength, and this continues that trend.

Disclaimer: This review was based on an ARC provided on request by the publisher, Tor.com.

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Spectred Isle by K. J. Charles

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Archaeologist Saul Lazenby has been all but unemployable since his disgrace during the War. Now he scrapes a living working for a rich eccentric who believes in magic. Saul knows it’s a lot of nonsense…except that he begins to find himself in increasingly strange and frightening situations. And at every turn he runs into the sardonic, mysterious Randolph Glyde.

Randolph is the last of an ancient line of arcanists, commanding deep secrets and extraordinary powers as he struggles to fulfil his family duties in a war-torn world. He knows there’s something odd going on with the haunted-looking man who keeps turning up in all the wrong places. The only question for Randolph is whether Saul is victim or villain.

Saul hasn’t trusted anyone in a long time. But as the supernatural threat grows, along with the desire between them, he’ll need to believe in evasive, enraging, devastatingly attractive Randolph. Because he may be the only man who can save Saul’s life—or his soul.
~~~~~
At Eastercon, Juliet Kemp recommended I read K. J. Charles’ historical romance novels; she extended the same recommendation at Nineworlds, where Charles happened to be appearing, selling copies of her latest novel, the first in a new stand-alone series. So I picked up Spectred Isle and read it on the flight from London to Helsinki…

Spectred Isle is set in the wake of the First World War, in 1920s Britain; a society divided by class but united by the terrible experience of the war and following pneumonia, which wiped out so much of the population. Into this society are dropped Saul Lazenby, disgraced discharged soldier now working for an eccentric lord, and Randolph Glyde, a member of Britain’s magical and temporal aristocracies. This is a romance, so the end result is inevitable; what we read Charles for is to see how she’ll get there, and what obstacles will appear in the characters’ ways.

The biggest obstacle is themselves. Spectred Isle does a great job at writing the two romantic partners as opposites who bounce off each other hard even as they find the other incredibly attractive; the dynamic of their developing relationship is written sympathetically and powerfully, although at times with a bit of a knowing wink to the reader at the inevitability of them getting together. Each carries their own, different wounds, as well as their different experiences of being gay in 1920s Britain; Charles draws them together in a tender and beautiful emotional net built out of their different characters.

Aside from that, there is also the external obstacle of the supernatural. Spectred Isle is a book as much about supernatural sleuthing as it is about burgeoning romance; something or someone is attacking Britain’s magical defences, weakened by the slaughter of the occult war that underlay the physical one, and Randolph has to stop it. Saul seems to keep blundering in his way, until eventually, he’s drawn into the strange web being woven around the occult sites of England; and transitions from a sceptic to a believer in magic himself. Charles builds this plot slowly and carefully, placing clues as to what’s going on the way a crime writer does; putting the pieces together gives rise to a bigger picture that will, the reader presumes, continue in the later installments in the series.

Spectred Isle is interesting in the way Charles uses her setting. In 1920s Britain, homosexual sex was a criminal act, but also one that was, in the upper classes at least, often tacitly accepted; Randolph and Saul thus have very different attitudes to their sexualities, although there are interesting commonalities. What Charles never does is let either become a tragic figure, or the only queers in the world; this is a setting which has background queers of all kinds, and while both have tragedy in their past, in neither case is it solely because of their homosexuality. It’s a hard balance to strike, but an important one.

Finally, but very worth note, this is a romance novel that goes straight into erotica. Charles is very willing to put sex on the page, and explicit, slightly kinky sex at that; Spectred Isle has a few sex scenes, and each is different, well-imagined, and hot. They are sex scenes which reveal a lot about the characters, and grow organically out of the interactions between their personality types; made all the more sexy by the way Charles doesn’t shy away from being explicit, or having her characters be so.

Spectred Isle was my first taste of Charles’ period gay romance, but it definitely won’t be my last; this is a hot and brilliant book and I look forward to the rest of the series.

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A Song for Quiet by Cassandra Khaw

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Deacon James is a rambling bluesman straight from Georgia, a black man with troubles that he can’t escape, and music that won’t let him go. On a train to Arkham, he meets trouble — visions of nightmares, gaping mouths and grasping tendrils, and a madman who calls himself John Persons. According to the stranger, Deacon is carrying a seed in his head, a thing that will destroy the world if he lets it hatch.

The mad ravings chase Deacon to his next gig. His saxophone doesn’t call up his audience from their seats, it calls up monstrosities from across dimensions. As Deacon flees, chased by horrors and cultists, he stumbles upon a runaway girl, who is trying to escape the destiny awaiting her. Like Deacon, she carries something deep inside her, something twisted and dangerous. Together, they seek to leave Arkham, only to find the Thousand Young lurking in the woods.

The song in Deacon’s head is growing stronger, and soon he won’t be able to ignore it any more.
~~~~~
Khaw has written, over the last year or so, weird noir, in the first Persons Non Grata novella Hammers on Bone; culinary horror in the form of Rupert Wong, Cannibal Chef; and supernatural romance, in Bearly A Lady. So coming to the second Persons Non Grata novella, one might expect to get another slice of weird noir… one would have to think again, though.

Instead, A Song For Quiet is much closer in kind to Victor LaValle’s Hugo-nominated A Ballad For Black Tom; historically set, Khaw engages with the racial background against which much of the early weird fiction was written, and takes the side of the oppressed against the oppressor. Much of the narrative is driven by the way oppression and violence have manifested in the life of Deacon James, and Khaw doesn’t pull punches there. Not only is segregation in full effect in the South, subtler racisms in the North also affect Deacon, and the fear he had to live in in the South isn’t easy to escape.

Khaw uses that to drive the plot; like LaValle in A Ballad for Black Tom, she is concerned with why oppressed and marginalised people might be driven to think the destruction of the world might not be so bad. A Song For Quiet combines the alienness of a Lovecraft story with the everyday horror of man’s inhumanity to man to make the reader, as much as the characters, rethink what would otherwise seem obvious; saving the world is a less easy choice when that world is determined to break you and destroy you. Khaw balances different perspectives and attitudes on this brilliantly, and the final resolution of A Song For Quiet is brilliant, sad, and lyrical all at once.

This is a very intense and personal story, and as such, would not work without strong characters to really make the reader feel the complexity. A Song For Quiet once again demonstrates that Khaw’s greatest strength is very quickly creating a character, and then making them complex and whole; Deacon is brilliantly realised as a black man with the tragedy of grief in his immediate past and permanently confronted by racism, while Ana’s scarred past of abuse and horror at distinctly human hands shows us a different view of hell. The relationship between the two is brilliantly realised and burns slowly into a mutual respect and understanding that Khaw writes with an excellently delicate touch.

Finally, we need to talk about plot. Khaw’s weakness in the past has been carrying a single plot through a whole work of this length, rather than making it feel bitty. In the case of A Song For Quiet, much like Hammers on Bone, though, this weakness is something she has wholeheartedly overcome. Different elements of the plot at first can look a little disparate but she draws them together with an amazing confidence and skill, to come to a very sharp point at the conclusion of the story, one aimed right at the heart with perfect skill.

I hope we continue to see this level of plotting from Khaw moving forward, just as we continue to see excellent characterisation from her; A Song For Quiet is yet another level up from one of this generation’s great new writers.

Disclaimer: This review was based on an ARC provided by the publisher, Tor.com. Cassandra Khaw is a friend.

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Things Can Only Get Better by John O’Farrell

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Things Can Only Get Better is the personal account of a Labour supporter who survived eighteen miserable years of Conservative government. It is the heartbreaking and hilarious confessions of someone who has been actively involved in helping the Labour party lose elections at every level: school candidate: door-to-door canvasser: working for a Labour MP in the House of Commons; standing as a council candidate; and eventually writing jokes for a shadow cabinet minister.


Along the way he slowly came to realise that Michael Foot would never be Prime Minister, that vegetable quiche was not as tasty as chicken tikki masala and that the nuclear arms race was never going to be stopped by face painting alone.
~~~~~
Do you remember the evening of May 1st, 1997? Do you remember the morning and day that was May 2nd, 1997? Do you remember that things can only get better? That was the first day in my life that I lived under a Labour government. It’s my second political memory. It’s a memory full of joy, and awe, and amazement, and surprise. For John O’Farrell, it was the culmination of nearly two decades of hard work as a Labour activist; and so, over the course of the six months following victory, he wrote his political memoirs of Labour’s time in the wilderness: the result is, of course, Things Can Only Get Better.

This isn’t a standard memoir; really, it’s a series of snapshots in the life of a Labour supporter, taking in each election in which O’Farrell took any active part from the General Election of 1979 that brought Margaret Thatcher to power to that of 1997, which finally removed the Conservative government from office. Things Can Only Get Better is therefore a little parochial at times: Scotland, for instance, which underwent a political earthquake in 1997 unparalleled until 2015, gets only a brief mention, and England outside London barely more than that. When talking about the political mood, it’s notable how often O’Farrell means the political mood in London specifically, or even just in Battersea.

However, that limitation aside, Things Can Only Get Better is actually rather fascinating in one particular way that is often overlooked: the hard work of actually running an election campaign on the local level. O’Farrell worked as ward secretary, campaign agent, and campaign organiser in various elections of various scales over the course of the Tory dominion, and he talks about the processes involved in running a campaign operation. The complete lack of glamour and lack of general recognition volunteers get is something he drives home to the reader with a real sense of the importance of the work.

O’Farrell’s history of the Labour Party’s 1980s wilderness years seems to presage a lot of their new wilderness years in the 21st century; the infighting and desperation, and the arguments over the soul of the party. Things Can Only Get Better sides solidly with the Blairites, because they brought Labour to power, even while acknowledging that Blair was pawning the soul of the party for victory. Obviously, written in 1997 and published in 1998, the decade that followed was something that O’Farrell couldn’t predict, from the Iraq War and erosion of public ownership of public services (such as health and education) to the huge expansion of gay rights and the strengthening of our relationship with Europe.

The biggest theme of O’Farrell’s book, though, is also the reason I’m posting this review out of sequence, the day before election day; as Things Can Only Get Better hammers home time again, it is vital to take part in democracy. It is vital to vote. Polls, time and again, are proved wrong in the book, because people don’t turn out, or because they lied to pollsters; a counsel of despair is a false counsel, because you, the voter, can take part, and O’Farrell has some very choice words for those who claim that both sides are the same:

Other people told me they were not voting because ‘they’re all the same’. As if the party of Margaret Thatcher and Norman Tebbit and Nicholas Ridley was the same as the party of Neil Kinnock, John Prescott and Dennis Skinner. The idea that there’s no point in voting because ‘they’re all the same’ is just intellectually lazy. You don’t have to wholly endorse everything one particular candidate stands for, you just have to consider one person as preferable to the other. If all of them are completely unacceptable, then stand for election yourself. Nothing gets my hackles up more than people who should know better copping out of the political system because they think they are above it. (p215)

That quote also illustrates one of the great strengths of Things Can Only Get Better; O’Farrell, a writer for Have I Got News For You and Spitting Image, and occasional joke-polisher for then-Shadow Chancellor Gordon Brown, is funny. He’s angry, he’s passionate, he’s political, and all of that is interspersed with brilliant bon mots, and moments that undercut his moral severity; O’Farrell isn’t above poking fun at himself or at the foibles of the Labour Party, any more than he’s above making cracks at the expense of the Tories. Some of the things O’Farrell goes after are the easy, obvious targets, but he’s also willing to do the harder political lifting too.

In the end, Things Can Only Get Better is a paean to the importance of getting stuck in and persisting to create change; I look forward to O’Farrell’s sequel, Things Can Only Get Worse, to be released in September, bringing the story up to the current election. Now, go out and vote on Thursday, write O’Farrell’s last chapter for him… and let’s make it a hopeful, progressive one!

Testament by Hal Duncan

On my Patreon, one of the rewards, for $5/month, is collectively choosing something for me to review at the start of the next month; that goes up at the start of the month for patrons at that level, and they decided that they should also go up publicly! As a result, a month after my patrons see these reviews, they’ll be posted here. And in February, my $5 patrons decided I should review… Hal Duncan’s Testament

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In the 21st Century, a scalpel slices bible pages, passages spliced to restore lost truth. In the days of King Herod, the messias rises, calling to black sheep: walk with me. Now, here, between two aeons and across Æternity, a beloved student rebuilds his Gospel for the era of Anonymous: anarchist, socialist, atheist, revolutionary. Forget the tale you were spun and open your ears to the teacher who said, I will have mercy and not sacrifice. From the Hebridean fishing village of Capernaum, to a Jerusalem under Il Duce Pontius Pilate…

The Empire ends today.
~~~~~
Hal Duncan is possibly best known as a poet and a commentator on science fiction and fantasy from a queer, anarchist, iconoclastic, somewhat punk perspective, setting himself up as the Elder of Sodom, and the blurb of Testament lays out his manifesto in the book perfectly accurately: it is a retelling of the Gospels from a queered point of view, with God taken out of the equation.

It must be emphasised that taking God out of the Bible is a long tradition, though I’m not sure Duncan would see himself as in continuity with Jefferson or Pullman; but as a project, this has very similar roots – suggesting that the morality Christ taught is valid, but the idea of his divinity is not. Whereas Jefferson simply removes those as later interpolations and Pullman posited a fictional, manipulative brother, Duncan suggests they’re a misreading of what Christ was saying: there is no God but only humanity, the “everyman”; Christ’s father was not God, but an unknown revolutionary. The problem with any of these projects is the same, though; picking and choosing what bits of the Gospels you accept as true, and which bits you think are lies, can never be backed up by anything but “Because I say so”, and Duncan’s project, though explicitly fictional, does nothing to stand up to the question of, “Aren’t you ignoring the actual language involved for your own purposes?”

Testament also stands in a long tradition of Jesus/Judas slash; this particular queering of Jesus is a slightly odd one from Duncan, relying as it does on reading three distinct people as all being Judas, and on presuming all love (at least, all love between men) is sexual. It’s absolutely true that there’s no textual evidence that Christ wasn’t queer, and indeed some that He may have been, although it’s… at best tenuous, but what strikes this reader as strange is the effort Duncan goes to in reading queerness into parts of the Bible where it wasn’t, while ignoring areas where there is much stronger evidence of queerness (the pais of the centurion, here treated simply as a slave, for instance). Queerness, for Duncan, appears to be specially reserved for Christ and the Disciples, and not all of them.

That’s not the only odd, tenuous reading, of course. While many people have questioned how the epistles of Paul fit with the teachings of Christ, and how the edifice of the Catholic Church (as founded by Peter who was Simon) fits with those teachings, Duncan’s explanation is… unsatisfactory: Paul was a sleeper agent sent by the Roman Empire to undermine the Church? Peter founded the Church and was the one who reconciled it to Empire? And yet, chronologically and historically and sociologically, in terms of the Early Church, that just doesn’t make sense (think Diocletian, if you’re wondering why). Testament doesn’t engage with later persecution of the Christians, going right up to the modern day, instead casting Christianity as purely persecutor; an argument that strains credulity.

Finally, there’s the approach to chronology and timeslipping that Testament deploys. This is fundamental to Duncan’s project; he slips references to modernity into this Gospel of Judas, with Christ preaching at the kirk, with the setting changed from Judea to Aberdeen, with the Romans pepperspraying lines of Christians. It’s evocative, to be sure, but it also feels messy; it departicularises Christ from his time and place, something Duncan sometimes relies on, to universalise everything he says, even when it isn’t. The time slipping is especially problematic in the way Duncan, a Gentile, deploys the Holocaust, and how he, a white Scot, deploys Black suffering; laid at the foot of the Christian Church (not unreasonably), he takes them as his own stories to tell, as his own events to use however he wants. As a Jew, this is, to say the least, offensive to me.

I’m not the right person to engage deeply with the theology of Testament; it seems to me to be taking the messages of Jesus and distorting them in a mirror image of the way some established churches do. But for what I can comment on, while this is an artful novel, and an interesting one, it’s also a deeply flawed project that repeatedly undermines itself; useful to read, but with one’s head cocked, as it were.

DISCLOSURE: Hal Duncan is a fellow Glaswegian and a friend.

If you found this review useful, or if you’d like to help choose what I review next month, please support my ability to write these reviews by contributing to my Patreon.

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They Can’t Kill Us All by Wesley Lowery

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In over a year of on-the-ground reportage, Washington Post writer Wesley Lowery traveled across the US to uncover life inside the most heavily policed, if otherwise neglected, corners of America today.

In an effort to grasp the scale of the response to Michael Brown’s death and understand the magnitude of the problem police violence represents, Lowery conducted hundreds of interviews with the families of victims of police brutality, as well as with local activists working to stop it. Lowery investigates the cumulative effect of decades of racially biased policing in segregated neighborhoods with constant discrimination, failing schools, crumbling infrastructure and too few jobs.


Offering a historically informed look at the standoff between the police and those they are sworn to protect, They Can’t Kill Us All demonstrates that civil unrest is just one tool of resistance in the broader struggle for justice. And at the end of President Obama’s tenure, it grapples with a worrying and largely unexamined aspect of his legacy: the failure to deliver tangible security and opportunity to the marginalised Americans most in need of it.
~~~~~
The broad Black Lives Matter movement has been one of the emerging political phenomena of the 2010s, affecting change, driving conversations and changing political priorities across the world. Wesley Lowery’s reportage gave him a unique point from which to observe the development of the movement, the mobilisation of a generation and community of people often seen as “apathetic” by outsiders, and this book came out of that reportage, so how does “They Can’t Kill Us All”: The Story of Black Lives Matter hold up to the task?

In a word, poorly. We’ll begin by addressing the subtitle; this book claims to be the story of Black Lives Matter. That’s always going to be a tall order for a slim volume (less than 250 pages, including the notes and index), but is even taller a one for such a partial and patchy volume as this is; what Lowery is presenting is rather less the story than his story of Black Lives Matter, with a few exceptions. This is unsurprising, given that They Can’t Kill Us All is based on his reportage, but it is a problem: we’re given a view that doesn’t ever tie different events together, that jumps from event to event and flashpoint to flashpoint without ever really covering the hard graft behind the scenes, the stuff that doesn’t get media attention. Reading this book, you’d think none of that actually happened.

Furthermore, They Can’t Kill Us All has a contradictory thread in it; on the one hand, the larger Black Lives Matter movement has many leaders, many people driving it, many people involved. On the other hand, Lowery has a specific set of contacts, so they come up time and again – as leaders and spokespeople for every situation; this is especially true of DeRay Mckesson, who Lowery appears to have relied on heavily for much of his access. The picture presented then becomes of a movement that is falsely protesting its own leaderlessness; the reality of the broad array of groups and people who are active in the cause belies that, but is only mentioned, not demonstrated, in the book.

They Can’t Kill Us All is also incredibly narrow. Rather than being a story of the movement, it is a story of specific moments in the movement: those that coalesced around a specific set of deaths or brutalisations by the police. There is a minimal historical framing in the book – Lowery acknowledges that the American original sin is slavery, and talks about different generations of black activism, but doesn’t really provide past or future context; there’s no suggestion of the historical roots of police oppression and little of the history of anti-oppression activism in the African-American community, and no look at the possible futures of the movement, or future trends in police-community relations.

Those moments are well-written, and the encounters with activists well portrayed, though; Lowery is a consummate journalist and his use of language is incredible. Each person we meet, we’re given a very short pen-portrait of, and those are evocative, packed full of interesting detail and character information; they’re brief but complex and seemingly complete, and the reportage of the black deaths and brutalisations covered in They Can’t Kill Us All are sympathetic, and told with a kind of eye for detail and clarity that really brings them to mind, in both memory and imagination.

Perhaps the biggest flaw of They Can’t Kill Us All is how dated it was the moment it appeared, though. This book came out in the UK & US in 2017. Wesley Lowery doesn’t touch on the racialised, racist Presidential campaign of Donald Trump, let alone his victory in November 2016. Lowery doesn’t touch on the responses of the Democratic or Republican primary candidates, let alone the eventual Presidential candidates, to Black Lives Matter activists and their disruption of events (the closest we get is the fact that some BLM activists became Sanders surrogates; no mention at all of Clinton). Lowery barely covers any of the events of 2016, almost as if Black Lives Matter just vanished into the Presidential campaign – something he says is a media misconception: well, if so, it’s one They Can’t Kill Us All perpetuates.

It’s possible I wanted a different kind of book; an actual history of the Black Lives Matter movement, not a series of snapshots of moments in the movement (but “This is a movement, not a moment”, per Lorenzo Norris, quoted on p73). But that’s what They Can’t Kill Us All claims to be; The Story of Black Lives Matter. On those grounds, despite the excellent journalistic style, this book is a definite failure.

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De Secretis Mulierum by L. Timmel Duchamp

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If countless numbers of people throughout history have wished for an early menopause, probably no one wished more devoutly for it than Thomas Aquinas. No doubt he literally prayed for it morning, noon, and night. A picture comes to mind of him kneeling in his cell, pleading with the Virgin for release from a burden even Job hadn’t been forced to bear.

According to the Pentagon-owned-and-operated Past-Scan Device, Leonardo da Vinci and Thomas Aquinas were both women in drag. Jane Pendler’s advisor says that’s impossible, that the technology must be bogus, and pulls the plug on Jane’s dissertation research on Leonardo. What’s a feminist graduate student to do? What else, but do the research behind her advisor’s back, of course…
~~~~~
De Secretis Mulierum is one of the Aqueduct Press Conversation Pieces, written by the woman who started the series. Duchamp’s entry is in a variety of conversations in and about history, as well as gender; but how does it stand up?

De Secretis Mulierum feels in some ways like one of those college romance novels a certain kind of lecturer writes, only inverted; here, we see the relationship from the point of view of the grad student who feels like she can’t leave for fear of retribution. We see an abusive relationship, never called that, but painted in all the colours of control, denigration, shame and apology; we see Pendler justifying Teddy’s actions to herself increasingly desperately and increasingly knowing that those justifications just aren’t true. It’s an impressive feat of writing, making Teddy an academic blowhard and an emotionally abusive partner while not rendering him a fool; and while also making us empathise with Pendler really strongly.

Mind you, that’s more subplot than plot. The romantic element of the story plays into the main theme, but only plays into it. De Secretis Mulierum is really about how far one would go to buck an establishment’s orthodoxies, knowing one was right, when those orthodoxies refuse to be bucked. Duchamp doesn’t make it, in her novella, questionable as to whether Aquinas and Da Vinci are female; indeed, the unquestionableness of that femaleness is part of the point. Da Vinci, of course, has for a long time been seen as gender noncomforming, hence the acceptability to Duchamp’s version of the establishment of “him” as a woman; Aquinas, with his misogyny and academic genius, however, proves more of a sticking point. De Secretis Mulierum is a discussion of why that might be – the gendered associations we have with genius, with logic, with art; our understanding of religion; or the threat to the male establishment Aquinas’ true gender being revealed would create.

Duchamp explores this fascinatingly, integrated into her story of Pendler’s persistent continuation of her project looking at the true gender of Da Vinci; she draws Teddy’s personal misogyny together with his academic resistance. De Secretis Mulierum explains and elucidates on the relationship between the personal, the professional, and the political; the relationship between Pendler and Teddy is just one of a number of tools for doing this, and it works incredibly well.

This is the first Conversation Piece I have read, and it is fantastic; I highly recommend De Secretis Mulierum, especially to anyone planning to advance a theory that will buck the academic establishment!