Thursday, June 14, 2007

Takeoff and Touchdown

Lesbian writers have had a lot of influence on me, ever since Jill Johnston's 1971 "Lois Lane Is a Lesbian" essays in the Village Voice prompted me to come out. Since then, lesbian writers have written many of my favorite books, whether about gay men (The Front Runner, Memoirs of Hadrian, The Persian Boy) or about, well, lesbians. From Kate Millett and Isabel Miller to Sarah Waters and Alison Bechdel, they've been among my role models as writers.

Emma Donoghue is another. I first read Passion Between Women, her historical study, and from there moved to her first two novels, Stir-fry and Hood. I liked the idea of Kissing the Witch, her retelling of fairy tales from a lesbian sensibility, but the result didn't do much for me, though the book seems to be one of her more popular. Slammerkin, a largely heterosexual historical novel, also enlarged her audience, though it wouldn't have won me over if it had been the first thing I'd read by her. After a collection of stories based on historical anomalies, The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits (which I almost wrote as Brith to Rabbis), and another historical novel, Life Mask, it's not surprising that many of her readers think of Donoghue primarily as a historical novelist, and were surprised by her move to the present in the stories of Touchy Subjects and her new novel, Landing.

To me that return was a relief. I feel sure that writing about historical subjects is important to Donoghue, but I also feel sure that her heart goes into her novels about contemporary, preferably Irish, lesbians. (I don't think this is because I can't connect to historical fiction; I really love Sarah Waters's books, for instance.) Hood swept me off my feet: it follows Pen O'Reilly, a young woman whose lover since high school has died in an auto accident, through her first week of shock, grief, and adjustment. It's exquisitely written, and her account of Pen's tangled feelings moved me deeply.

So I was eager to read Landing, and it didn't disappoint. Landing is about the coming together of Jude Turner, a small-town Canadian dyke of 25, who runs the historical museum in a hamlet called Ireland, Ontario. (Inspired by but not modeled on Dublin, Ontario.) Jude is stubbornly resistant to modernity: she has no cell phone, no e-mail (except for museum business), and has never flown. When her mother becomes ill during a visit to England, however, Jude bites the bullet and boards a plane. Along the trip she strikes up an acquaintance with a flight attendant, Síle (pronounced Sheila) O'Shaughnessy, a very cosmopolitan 39-year-old Indo-Irishwoman with a female partner of five years. It's just one of those random bumpings-together that happen during travel -- they don't even know at first that they're both gay -- but they find reasons to get in touch. They begin to correspond (Jude overcomes her aversion to e-mail), to bond, and next thing you know they're crossing the pond for holiday visits. Síle's relationship ends, messily, and Jude has loose ends of her own to tie up.

Donoghue does her usual wonderful job of recounting the progress of their growing connection. But the real barrier is their respective rootedness, or in Síle's case, her determined lack thereof. Who's going to risk giving up the life she's used to? Will Síle move to Canada, or Jude to Ireland? I suppose I'm especially ready to respond to a story like this, because I so often wonder about trying to start a life with someone new in middle age -- not a likely prospect right now, but it comforts me in my confirmed bachelorhood -- and fantasize about moving out of state, or (better) out of the country when I retire, but what will I do with all my books? One reason to read a novel like Landing is to experience vicariously how such scenarios might play out. It helps that Landing is told from the viewpoints of both protagonists alternatively, since I identified with both in different ways.

I see from customer reviews on Amazon that some people find the story insufficiently action-packed, which I suppose is true. In some ways Landing is a very old-fashioned novel, and Donoghue an old-fashioned novelist -- witness her fondness for the 18th century. (You want action, try something like Nicola Griffith's The Blue Place, another favorite of mine.) But one of the things a novel can do is to take things slowly, to take its time developing characters, to depict relationships in all their complexity. Donoghue does that very well, and I'm glad to have her back in the 21st century.