Monday, August 29, 2016


CALENDAR GIRL by Stella Duffy (Serpent's Tail, 1991)

Reviewed by Alice Stringer

Stand-up comic Maggie has fallen for "the girl with the Kelly McGillis body", a mysterious woman who can't commit herself. Meanwhile, South London detective Saz is hot on the trail of a woman known only as "September", who commutes between London and New York in a whirlwind of drug smuggling, gambling, and high-class prostitution. A murder brings Saz and Maggie and their respective mysteries together.

Perhaps it’s because I am a queer woman that I love novels about lesbians so much. Patricia Highsmith’s CAROL (originally published as THE PRICE OF SALT) made me sob, and is high on my list of favourite books. I travelled from London to Manchester and back in a day so that I could see a theatre adaptation of Sarah Waters’ NIGHT WATCH. I recently put forward Jenny Downham’s UNBECOMING as a suggested read for my Young Adult book group (then missed the meeting). I tore through Lucy Ribchester’s THE HOURGLASS FACTORY.

A key common factor in these is that, aside from CAROL, they are about more than their main characters’ sexualities, though this element is always prominent and important. The exception here is CAROL, which is important because it is a romance between two women, with a happy ending, and clearly and openly treats homophobia as the social ill that it is, published at a time when that simply did not happen. The rest of these books are about things that books without lesbians in them are about: disease, journalists, circuses, paramedics, mysteries. I love a good romance, but there are other genres: lesbians can be spies, astronauts, pirates, sports stars, rock stars, journalists, dancers, artists, bankers, parents, gardeners, pilots, adventurers... and detectives.

CALENDAR GIRL is without a doubt a novel about lesbians: detective Saz Martin, the two women at the centre of the murder are lesbians, their friends are mostly – though not exclusively – lesbians, and there are connections throughout that reflect just how small the community can be. It’s also worth noting that CALENDAR GIRL was published over twenty years ago: it would be brave and, sadly, rare, to publish it now, so to have done so then was even more so. It’s interesting to consider how some of the details, such as women being unable to get married, have changed, but other hints of homophobia are still seen and experienced all the time. Though I do concede that my early-1990s references are slightly out, and I had to google Kelly McGillis...

CALENDAR GIRL is Stella Duffy’s first novel, and the fourth of her books that I’ve read. I recommend her often, to all sorts of people (one of the perks of working in a library!). Her books unnerve me, intrigue me, draw me in and won’t let go, long after I read the last page. While I don’t enjoy horror, I love a good creepy murder story, and hers never disappoint: her 2013 collection of short stories, EVERYTHING IS MOVING, EVERYTHING IS JOINED is wonderfully unsettling, and there are parts of THE ROOM OF LOST THINGS that made me cringe. CALENDAR GIRL, too, delivers exceptionally well on that front, with a particular detail that still makes me shudder months later. The characters are slippery, difficult to define or pin down – it’s always uncomfortable to wonder when the bad guy is going to turn up next.

The story is clever, it twists and turns so it’s not obvious where it’s going – always such a disappointment to be able to guess too easily – but nor is it so obscure that it doesn’t make sense. There is plenty of mystery to make it difficult to put down, enough suspense to be occasionally quite stressful, enough action to keep any James Bond fan happy and, crucially, it doesn’t take itself too seriously. It is good fun but far from ridiculous, funny without being A Funny Book, smart without being hard work. I enjoyed it so much that it was a real struggle to save WAVEWALKER, the sequel, for my holiday, though I can now confirm that it, too, is fantastic.

Alice has been blogging since early 2015 at Alice's Adventures in Bookland, mostly about books but also about theatre, travel, and sexuality. She has worked in a school library for three and a half years, and is always happy to recommend you a book.

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