Passing Strange by Ellen Klages. (Tor.com Publishing, January 2017. Ebook $2.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-8951-0. Cover art by Gregory Manchess. Cover design by Christine Foltzer. )
My story being done,
She gave me for my pains a world of sighs.
She swore, i’ faith, ’twas strange, ’twas passing strange;
‘Twas pitiful, ’twas wondrous pitiful.
She wished she had not heard it; yet she wished
That heaven had made her such a man.
– Othello, Act 1, Scene 3
Let’s start with that: wow. Let’s end with it too, because Ellen Klages’ Passing Strange lives up to the intriguing and cryptic promise of its matter-of-fact opening line with verve and vigour and an unexpected generosity and grace.
That first line is: “On the last Monday of her life, Helen Young returned from the doctor’s and made herself a cup of tea.”
Passing Strange isn’t about Helen Young as such, either now at the age of one hundred or seventy-five years earlier, in 1940, when she’s a young Asian-American lawyer making a living through dancing for tourists in San Francisco’s Chinatown — but she’s central to the story in more ways than one.
The emotional core of the story is a circle of women in 1940s San Francisco (although it is bookended by the acts of 100-year-old Helen). Their romantic and carnal inclinations include other women, and in 1940, San Francisco is one place where they can live and love in (relative) freedom, despite the difficulties of police harassment, moral codes, and the fact that the bars where they can be out in public are only allowed to operate because tourists come there to be titillated.
And the core of that story is the love between Loretta Haskel and Emily Netterfield.
Haskel, an artist who does covers for pulp magazines, encounters Emily Netterfield one evening in the company of Franny Travers and her circle, which includes Helen. Franny is an intellectual and something of a magician, and a vein of the wondrous and the strange runs through the heart of Passing Strange — to which I shall return momentarily.
Emily Netterfield fled an old and wealthy East Coast family to avoid repercussions for being caught in flagrante delicto with a girl. Now Emily performs as the dapper, masculine “Spike” at Mona’s, a club for women who like other women. When circumstances and mutual attraction send Emily home from the club with Haskel, the two quickly fall into a deep and meaningful relationship, but their fragile happiness is abruptly threatened when Haskel’s estranged husband returns from sea, angry and demanding money. To preserve their happiness, to write themselves into a different story, Emily consents when Haskel suggests they try magic to take themselves away…
Klages draws San Francisco in 1940 in vivid colours and subtle shades. The sense of place in this story is a vital piece of what makes it work. Here is a real city, vibrant and bustling: and here are its subaltern communities, struggling for acknowledgement as equally human. Passing Strange isn’t a tragedy. Its register remains defiantly hopeful, stubbornly determined about the possibilities for joy and happiness even as it acknowledges that shit happens and sometimes shit really sucks. It centres on a community of women who care about each other and show up for each other, on kindness and the willingness to help each other out, on friendship and — I repeat this word, because it feels so central — on community. On chosen family.
Its focus on women and women’s relationships with each other as family, as well as its 20th-century historical setting and its style, reminds me of Genevieve Valentine’s The Girls at the Kingfisher Club. Like Valentine’s novel, it feels like a modern fairy-story — though unlike Valentine, Klages here is not drawing directly on the bones of an existing fable. But they share a sense of intimacy, as well characters who are caught between hard places because systems of power are indifferent or hostile to their independent happiness.
And there’s that vein of magic running through it, and the polyvalent implications of the title. Passing: passing for straight, a passing moment, surpassing, passing by. Strange and all the nuances of that word. Passing Strange is passing strange, indeed, and more than passing beautiful: elegantly constructed, elegiac, and hopeful in the face of difficult things.
This is a gorgeous short novel. I came to it vaguely suspicious of its premises, and finished by loving it unreservedly. It’s amazing. Read it.
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