Three of my Cumbrian literary connections have written novels that turn and examine issues of sex and sexuality. Two of these novels are debuts, written by Alex Morgan and Simon Sylvester. Respective titles: Tandem, and The Visitors. The third novel, The Centauress, is by the well-published biographer and poet, Kathleen Jones, who has a previous novel, The Sun’s Companion, both published by The Book Mill. Tandem was the 2014 Hookline novel competition winner, and is published by Hookline Press. The Visitors was published this summer by Quercus, and is shortlisted for the Guardian Not The Booker Prize. Simon and Kathleen are linked to my blog via ‘The Writing Process Blog Tour’.
If there is anything that human society struggles with – perhaps more than keeping body and soul together – it is the issue of sex and sexuality. Our ideas of ‘body’ and ‘soul’ are enshrined in inflexible and unrealistic ideals of ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ . The biological systems that make us female or male are not definitive, nor how we choose define ourselves on that spectrum and relate sexually to others. Some of us are born ‘intersex’. I was surprised to learn that the probability of being of undefined sex is of the order of one in two thousand. See Kathleen’s blog – The Tragic Feminisation of Baby M.
Our understanding of how we are made has improved with our understanding of the science, but society’s rules are still catching up. We struggle to cope with people whose biological sex is not clearly assigned as ‘female’ or ‘male’. Similarly, we struggle with issues of sexuality – whether it is someone of non-heterosexual orientation or a person who wishes to express themselves differently gendered from their ‘biological’ sex. This is not easy territory for a writer to do sensitively and sympathetically, but these three have taken on the challenge and have succeeded, each producing an enjoyable and rewarding novel.
In Tandem we find a woman, Paula, coming to terms with the death of her brother, who she regards as a twin – almost a male form of herself. They are inseparable as they grow up. The intensity of that relationship is investigated in contrast to her male lovers, one of whom was also attracted homosexually to her brother. Meeting a child who is intersex underscores the arbitrary nature of the issue of gender allocation and asks why a person is less worthy of love and acceptance because they don’t fit the definitions. A brave debut novel from Alex Morgan, who writes with compassion, humour and sound understanding of narrative. She is not afraid to ground the novel in ordinary life, which is – of course – where everything important happens. Her emotional landscape is convincing and engaging. The novel’s title ‘Tandem’ refers to the bicycle ridden by Paula and her brother at competition level, but is also a metaphor for the relationships that blend male and female attributes into a functional and powerful unit.
The Visitors is a haunting novel of a teenage girl growing up on a remote Scottish island – Bancree, living in a small cottage with her family – mother, stepfather and baby brother. When her school sweetheart leaves her behind for university, she is left at a loose end, and it is clear that her family expect her to launch herself into the world to make room for the growing baby. Life for a teenager on Bancree is lonely and unfulfilling. Then visitors arrive… but these are special people. The handsome and forbidding man with his beautiful daughter are not what they seem. And people begin to disappear. Flora discovers the truth, but at great cost. Sylvester has taken a risk by evoking the elemental selkie – an expression of female and male sexuality. He keeps it real, grounding us in the human reality of island life – which he evokes with great skill. His teenage female protagonist is also convincingly portrayed. Part detective, part romance (sort of!) and a coming of age story, he keeps us wanting more.
In The Centauress we meet Alex Forbes, still raw from the loss of her husband. A biographer, her career in the balance, Alex is asked to write the biography of a celebrated artist, Zenobia de Braganza. Living as a woman, but born intersex, Zenobia is the ‘centauress’ of the title. As a child, subjected to surgery to make her ‘female’ with tragic effects. Kathleen deals with this candidly, but is never prurient. Set in Istria, this novel is evocative and compassionate, uncovering family secrets and hidden allegiances and motivations. Jones gives insight into the process of researching a biography and the moral difficulties of personal involvement that provides a tension with the story of the bereaved protagonist. I was provoked by the issues raised, but enjoyed the novel for many other reasons, including the wonderful evocation of Istrian landscape and interpersonal intrigues of the scheming family. And more than frisson of romance!