Tag Archives: Gay fiction

The House of Impossible Beauties by Joseph Cassara: A book to rend your heart

Cover imageSet in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Joseph Cassara’s debut was inspired by the House of Xtravaganza, celebrated in Paris is Burning, a documentary about Harlem’s drag ball scene. That alone would have piqued my interest but it’s also from Oneworld Publications, one of my favourite publishers. The House of Impossible Beauties focuses on four characters: Angel, Venus, Juanito and Daniel. Angel and Venus are transsexual while Juanito and Daniel are not. All of them are runaways, looking for a home.

Young, sassy and beautiful, Angel inveigles herself into the dressing room of a New York drag scene star where she meets the love of her life. She and Hector dream of setting up their own house but this is 1980: AIDs is cutting a devastating swathe through the gay community and Angel is soon left alone. When she meets Venus they form an alliance which will last years, scraping enough money together turning tricks at the city’s piers to establish Angel’s longed for drag ball establishment. Soon Juanito joins them, a genius with fabric and delighted with the sewing machine Angel buys him. Then Venus spots Daniel, horribly naïve and ripe for exploitation, taking him home with her. Together these four make up the House of Xtravaganza, the first Latino house on the drag ball circuit and a place of sanctuary from a harsh world with Angel at its centre.

The strength of Cassara’s novel lies in his four central characters, each very different from the other but each looking and hoping for love. Angel buries the pain of losing Hector, channelling it into a fierce protectiveness; Venus falls into the trap of thinking she’s found her man only to discover he’s married; the delicately beautiful Juanito whose childhood still haunts him finds love with the adoring Daniel. AIDs is the grim backdrop to this novel, loss and sadness always in the background together with the straight world’s prejudice and ignorance, but there’s a bright thread of humour running through it, lightening its tone. Cassara was born long after the horrors wreaked by AIDs but he writes with empathy and humanity, evoking the pain of it all heartbreakingly well. When I first started this novel, I wondered if it might prove too long but I found myself drawn into its glittering, tragic world and caring deeply about what happened to its characters.

Tender by Belinda McKeon: Enduring love

TenderThere’s always a moment of worry when you’re about to plunge into a book you’ve been looking forward to for some time. I remember Belinda McKeon’s Solace being surrounded by a great deal of pre-publication buzz, lots of well-known names singing its praises one of whom was Colm Tóibin which made me pay more attention than usual. It turned out to be one of my favourite books of that year, hence the slightly apprehensive anticipation for Tender. In some ways, we’re back in the same territory: young people leaving rural Ireland for the city, both with strong ties to their families, both about to stretch those ties to snapping point.

Catherine and James meet in Dublin when James returns from his Berlin stint as a photographer’s assistant to reclaim the room Catherine has been renting for her first year at Trinity. Entirely different from each other, they almost instantly click. He’s tactile and outgoing, loudly pontificating on everything and everybody yet tender-hearted, while she’s self-conscious, buttoned-up and naïve. Before too long they’ve accumulated all the trappings of intimate friendship, everyone convinced they’re a couple. Eventually, James tells Catherine he’s gay: readers will be far from surprised but it comes as a shock to her. Soon she begins to bask in the glamour of this new sophisticated status, spilling the beans to those James has not yet told. For all his apparent confidence, he’s unable to act on his sexuality, pouring out his misery in his letters to Catherine when he returns to Berlin, letters which she guiltily neglects given her newly busy social life. When James comes back unexpectedly, her attention is elsewhere, but then things take an altogether different turn towards obsessive and impossible love. The novel begins in 1997, continuing through to 1998 when the Good Friday talks appear on the horizon, then ends in 2012, with Catherine and James established in their adult lives – one happy, one not.

Impossible not to read this novel without thinking about the resounding vote in favour of gay marriage passed in Ireland just last month. In the weeks leading up to the referendum, a ‘yes’ vote seemed certain for Dublin but voters in rural Ireland might have tipped the balance the other way despite those heart-warming scenes of people disembarking from boats, planes and trains, coming home to have their say. In the event, those fears were unfounded. Set eighteen years before the referendum, Tender portrays the pain of being gay in a country that had only decriminalised homosexuality five years before. McKeon is particularly good at capturing Catherine’s social awkwardness, her proud excitement at having a gay friend and the self-absorption which blinds her to James’s pain. It’s an extraordinarily intense novel at times: at one point the narrative fractures into short paragraphs as if to allow its readers gulps of air. There’s a long section in which McKeon explores Catherine’s relationship with James through The Birthday Letters, Ted Hughes’ collection of poems to Sylvia Plath, which forms the basis for Catherine’s essay. I’m sure it works if you know the poems well, but it’s a little confusing at times for those of us who don’t. That said I found Tender a profoundly involving novel – raw yet compassionate – and a very moving one, particularly in the light of that referendum vote. Clever title, too!

A Place Called Winter and Happy Birthday Shiny New Books

SBN-logoIt’s time for another issue of the wonderful Shiny New Books, stuffed full of interviews, articles and reviews by some of my favourite bloggers and this ones a celebratory issue: it’s their first birthday. Such a lot of hard work, energy and talent have been poured into this project. It’s been a delight to be associated with it.

My own contribution to the fifth issue is a review of Patrick Gale’s A Place Called Winter, the latest novel in a long writing career made illustrious by Richard and Judy whose choice of Notes from an Exhibition for their book club thrust Gale into the spotlight in 2007. Those of us who’d been enjoying his well turned out, humane and absorbing novels for some time could only be surprised that it hadn’t happened before. This one is intensely personal: it’s based upon family stories of Gale’s ancestor Harry who fled looming disgrace in England to farm a few bleak acres in Canada. If you’d like to know more why not pop over to Shiny New books where you can read the full review and explore all manner of other delights.

The Days of Anna Madrigal: Where we learn the secret of her name

Cover imageIf you’re a Tales of the City fan the very title of this novel will have you salivating with anticipation so without further ado – it’s lovely. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, Tales of the City is a collection of novels reflecting the life and times of their author which originally ran as a column in the San Francisco Chronicle beginning back in the ‘70s. It features a group of young people – Mary Ann Singleton, straight as a die and fresh from Cleveland; Michael Tolliver, the complete opposite; Mona Ramsey, a hippyish bisexual; and Brian Hawkins, a little older and very much the ladies’ man – all living in the bohemian confines of Barbary Lane under the loving eye of Anna Madrigal who offers her guests beautifully rolled joints alongside the nibbles.  They’re a delight – each one is like meeting up with old friends for a long overdue gossip. In this, the ninth instalment, Anna Madrigal is ninety-two years old, frail but still the wise old bohemian bird, cared for by the transgendering Jake Greenleaf who lives with her in Noe Hill, Barbary Lane having been taken over by stock brokers. Jake and his new squeeze are off to the Burning Man festival for which Jake has built a tricycle in the form of a monarch butterfly to honour Anna. Michael and his husband Ben are off to Burning Man too, albeit with a degree of reluctance from Michael who’s feeling his age. After eight years travelling the country in his RV, Brian has found himself a wife and is bringing her home to meet Anna, the nearest he has to a mother. Anna comes up with a surprising request – she wants them to take her back to Winnemucca, home of the Blue Moon brothel where Anna, née Andy, spent the first sixteen years of her life. She has some unfinished business to settle.

As you might expect from its title, there is a good deal of Anna’s back story interwoven with the Burning Man shenanigans which are often very funny. Slipped into the narrative are reminders of the characters’ backgrounds, updates on what they’re doing now and cameo appearances. Shawna, Brian’s adopted daughter, is much more to the fore. It’s a bit like the Archers with the older generation giving way to the new, but a lot more fun. And the story behind Anna’s name? Obviously I’m not going to tell you – suffice to say that it’s a poignant one and, sadly, still relevant today – but I will say that the anagram of Anna Madrigal is spelled out for those of us too dense to have figured it out already. I’ll leave it to you to work it out but while we’re on the subject of Maupin anagrams, here’s another to think about: I watched a documentary on him many years ago with the puzzling title Armistead Maupin Is a Man I Dreamt Up. Make of that what you will.