Tanith Lee is a writer who has always inspired strong reactions in me. When she hits, she hits it out of the park. And when she misses she bangs you in the face heavily with a bat. There appears to be no middle ground. I’m not sure how best to characterise Disturbed by her Song, as it seems to defy any particular genre classification - some of the stories involve the supernatural, either explicitly or implicitly, and some of them don’t, thought they all have an elusive, tantalising, other-worldly air to them. So let's go with 'queer, surrealistic and semi-fantastical.'
I’m not a big fan of short stories in general, which I know makes me a philistine, but it’s a personal preference thing, not a judgement thing. I like to be able to swim about in a text; short-stories barely dampen the feet. But the transitory, fragmentary feel of Disturbed by her Song contributes to the eerie pleasure of reading the book - one of the few instances when wanting more and not getting it is the right sort of literary gratification.
Moreover, the stories - although they each stand alone - are united and contextualised by their common themes, and the fact that they drift in and out of a fictionalised reality. The collection, which is broken into parts, ‘Youth and Age’, ‘Youth’ and ‘Age’, consists of stories and/or remembrances, ‘written’ by Esther and Judas Garber / Garbah, who are half-siblings. I mean, obviously they’re written by Tanith Lee, writing as Esther and Judas, but it provides an extremely effective meta-text. Esther and Judas have markedly different voices - Judas is distant and somewhat melancholy whereas Esther is frank and more expressive - but remain united by familial connection and experience. Equally the boundary between fiction and ‘reality’ remains vague at best, so, whether as characters, narrators, or writers they remain intriguingly unreliable figures, layering text on text on text, with Lee somewhere at the bottom of it all.
Like most story collections, your mileage may vary on an individual basis, but holistically I found Disturbed by her Song rather dazzling. The truth is, there’s a deep pleasure in reading a text set within a fully queer context. It’s one of the things I remember find warm-fuzziest about David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy. This is not say everyone in a fictional world has to be gay, but it’s just plain nice when same-sex desire is permitted to be normalised as well as explored.
On the other hand, Disturbed by her Song has - frankly - the weirdest prologue I’ve ever encountered. It’s several pages long and begins with Lee telling us something about the lives and characteristics of Esther and Judas, as though she’s constructing her own Wikipedia page. Then reveals they don’t actually exist and they’re people she’s made up in her head (no shit) and burbles on about how they’re, like, totally real to her and she has to write all their stuff down longhand because that’s how they would do it. And finally she wraps up by explaining that they are, like, her but not her, split from her and yet she’s drawn to them, and she, like, met them first in a dream- OH WHAT THE FUCK? COME ON? I guess it’s basically harmless writerly bullshit but I could have done without having to read it. I also genuinely can’t tell if she’s freaking out and trying not to freak out about the fact she’s writing queer stories as a straight woman and doesn’t want to come across as appropriative:
“That they are both gay is decidedly not the reason. I have written about Lesbian and male homosexual aspiration, love, lust and longing in several other places. Just as I’ve written about and as, ‘straight’ women and men, gifted sorcerers, murderers, gods, demons and saints...”
I do respect that, and I appreciate that a writer might feel uncomfortable about it. On the other hand, the way I see it, if you’re writing queer-friendly stuff and it’s DAMN GOOD, then I think pretending to be channeling two imaginary people who are like totally you but not you is on the borderline of offensive when just WRITING isn’t. I mean, sheesh, this came out in 2009 - I like to think most people could pick up some queer fantasy and not have to have it painfully explained to them where it came from.
But, anyway, I’ll forgive Tanith Lee a hell of a lot. Because I love her. Even when she’s being weird.
I'm not going to analyse every single story because that'd be dull as all hell but my favourite stories were Black Eyed Susan, Ne Que V'on Desir, Death and the Maiden, and Disturbed by her Song.
Black Eyed Susan is a delicious little lesbian ghost story, ‘written’ by Esther (though told in the first person, as herself, so it hovers on the fiction/reality precipice). It’s gloriously creepy and has a lovely old-world feel, like a piece of Victorian gothic. Esther - either as character or narrator - gets a job at a creepy Parisian hotel, where she has an affair with one of the other servant girls and falls for a ghost called Black Eyed Susan. That summary does not remotely do this story justice. The hotel, and its strange, often hostile denizens, are exquisitely portrayed in a few deft sentences - the Mademoiselle Coudeban, for example, who has a ‘scalpel of an eye’ and sits around sewing peculiar items the narrator characterises as ‘bags for octopuses’ or the excellently named Madame Ghoule who needs no further elucidation. Ne Que V'on Desir is a werewolf story that never once mentions the word werewolf ... uhh, guess I just spoiled it but, no, it's totally obvious. Judas has a wonderful voice, strange and broken, and melancholy and beautiful. I kind of have something of a crush on the poor bastard. Also the commingling of violence and eroticism, alienation, homosexuality and lycanthropy works insanely well. Death and the Maiden is stunningly creepy exploration of art, eroticism, gender and identity. And Disturbed By Her Song is completely heartbreaking.
I could babble on about this book for ages - I really really did love it. Please, Tanith Lee, keep channelling your imaginary gay people if this what results.