Speak Its Name
2 journalers for this copy...
• The first self-published novel ever to win a Betty Trask Award
• Included in Qspirit’s Top 35 LGBTQ Christian Books of 2016
• A finalist in the 2016 North Street Book Prize
Received from the author, elstaplador; thank so you much!
Read and enjoyed but not journaled yet / reserved for a fellow bookcrosser
This is actually the first ever e-book I've registered. Launching into the contemporary, then :-)
I made extensive notes while reading, but overall this needs some processing. (I'll try to have something done over the hols.)
It’s got a nice list of merits, too:
2017 Betty Trask Award
Qspirit’s Top 35 LGBTQ Christian Books of 2016
2016 North Street Book Prize for Fiction finalist
It’s taken me a while to jot down my thoughts and write a journal entry for this book. It’s hard not to lapse into the subjective. Also, I don’t quite know how to express myself in a politically correct manner, not wanting to offend anyone with my solely personal views or careless wording! The reader/reviewer, too, is put between a rock and a hard place: religion and sexual orientation both require utmost delicacy from anyone who wants to claim, prove a point, or illustrate anything in either realm.
This was a very pleasant, yet uncomfortable and tough read for me. I don’t think Christianity can ever be my cup of tea, but I wanted to test myself and see if anything from back there would fascinate me (no) or confuse me (not admitting). But surprisingly, the text didn’t negatively provoke me in that area, either. Quite the contrary: the processes of reconciliation and identity-building within the framework of religion turned out to be super interesting themes for literary exploration.
So here goes.
The book started off with detailed descriptions of the main character and her physical space, and other details that did not ignite immediate interest. Instead, I like the skill in which a (secluded) group was created and described for us: the closeness, the friendship, the acceptance within… In my understanding, these would mostly turn out to be utopias or illusions in real life; but the “classical” model so pertains in literature, especially in books written for children and young people (think pony books). The idea of belonging always appeals to an audience... the longing to be part of an expert circle, or the inclination to idolize the people who actively operate in such a circle/community of shared expertise, and the longing to eventually achieve the status of one to be idolized.
This feeling of inner-circle camaraderie is heightened when we follow Lydia to Peter & Colette’s place where everything is just so wonderfully bohemian. Colette’s lovely, casual, happy family… and her classically nonchalant "Bisexual, actually": beautiful. The reader, for sure, is already falling for the lovely and confident Colette, the stereotypical bi heroine.
Confidence (or the lack of it) plays a key part in the idol-creation process. And in the making of a great character, too; not necessarily a stock character in the bland sense. The reader is invited to marvel and fantasize about the scene, the idealized confidence, and the bliss of the life of the openly bi Colette. She’s harmoniously combining her orientation, sexuality, and faith. It’s all about uncompromising self-assurance and self-acceptance; and I’m guessing many in the target audience are after it, too. [Yes: there’s Colette and there’s Becky. Ever since we met Colette, I felt like reading episodes of DTWOF; and the politically active, motorcycling, leather-jacketed, shock-haired Becky is definitely the “Lois” of the novel :-)]
In contrast, at this point, we still don’t know if Lydia is out to anyone yet. I like the slooow way in which Lydia’s orientation unfolds to the reader, or, “unfolds”, as we are of course expecting an eventual revelation of the sort (unless we’ve picked the book randomly from the library shelf). Everything personal and unique about her is initially so hidden under all her religious activities.
The campus setting made me feel somewhat removed from the immediate target audience, having graduated from university nearly 20 years ago (feels like a lifetime). I felt like I couldn’t immediately relate to the student mindset anymore. But I do remember those theology majors in our Koine Greek class and our heated discussions (the class was mainly populated by theology students; very few others, like me, chose classical languages voluntarily). It was the rule rather than the exception that we slipped away from grammar and tackled theological questions instead, and I always thought it was a kind of a quirky privilege to be learning them alongside Greek :-)
“I came without my handbag...” I love the smug allusions! It’s oddly energizing to meet them in a Christian book; but then again, that’s what this book is all about. Overall, the text flows in a very reader-friendly way, in an easy-to-read language, but still it never lapses into underestimating the reader. I particularly like the dialogue; it’s like watching a movie. Actually: this could very well be a movie: not far into the story, I kept seeing the people and the scenes in my head, complete with beautiful director work. This is a major development compared to my frustrations in the opening chapter where the descriptions of people and places just did not seem to serve a point.
In the scene where Lydia and Colette converse at the Café Brasilia and Colette explains the sides of her identity and how she reconciles between them, or, with them, things get interesting, and right there the book soars. Maybe because this is something new; I’ve never read a fictional work with this particular combination of topics before. The story feels new and fresh and worth telling, and the questions and questioning of faith give depth to an otherwise standard coming-out story (but even as such, the story is enjoyable throughout!) And I feel like I'm in safe hands within the neat "model structure" and the ebb-and-flow of the narration.
I can’t decide whether the characterization goes too far for my liking, though. Colette is presented as a classical ideal figure, a model to idolize or to imitate. But, again very predictably, it’s Lydia who takes the lead in the latter part of the book. Lydia has changed, she has grown; and this is very much what we expect of her, too, in a bildungsroman.
The scenes of the book, too, are heavily stylized (trunkated and idealized?): they unfold like sequences from daydreams. These are meaningful little episodes that can be played over and over from the memory, but I can't decide whether they're just stock episodes or something real and timelessly beautiful. Colette and Lydia in coffee shops… the tortured emo Colette, suffering for unrequited love (who wouldn’t want her now?!) And Lydia & Colette together: what poetic and stylized names, too, compared to all the Ellies, Mels and Ollys… Lots of memorable lines and lots of clichéd topics (the wedding dilemma: no traditional dream wedding for Lydia; facing the parents; dealing with friends; a great coming-out scene in the end)... What makes this interesting is particularly the problem caused by the crash course of religion and orientation. The depth in Lydia’s thinking (particularly towards the latter part of the book) does get confusing for the reader, but it’s a skill to make the reader as much confused as the characters; to be able to convey the character's confusion as an element of great quality in the writing.
But suddenly they all just became so grown-up and knowledgeable: what a transformation for Lydia, in just barely 1.5 years! I’m afraid here we fall into the basic “pony-club” admiration pattern. These young adults can now handle everything independently: their studies, religion, student politics, sexual politics, relationships, living on their own without financial or emotional support from their parents… At this point, though, we admire Lydia more than Colette, and we admire her for a good reason (not a pony-club one). Colette, in fact, has not grown at all, she was all grown up when we first met her (which of course makes her a very unreal, utopian character, an impossibility from the beginning). But the grand spectacle on Lydia’s coming out/birthday/resignation day is a tad too much, even if we consider it's the "new Lydia"; I don't know how to read it, or what to read into it. The Speech… coming from a 21-year-old? Although, undoubtedly, there are times in life when a bit of drama is necessary and acceptable; and the state of being forced to accept things is at the very core of the book. And maybe, just maybe, the fantasy sugar-coating in the end was intentional: sometimes the utopian element is there particularly to challenge us and make us think.
Yet the story is open-ended: while the big outlines seem to be reconciled, we can only guess at the consequences of the reconciliation in Lydia's personal relationships with people and her communities... and, yes, we can also speculate on the lasting of the romance. I ended up liking Lydia and Colette so much I'm wishing them a happy future together; although the wiser and the more cynical me keeps reminding me of how young and inexperienced they really are.
Speculations aside, what matters now is how “the journey is just about to start...”
I like books where two or more cultures meet and am interested in (fictional or non-fictional) stories about groups having their own culture, e.g. religious groups. So, even if it was a bit of a struggle first, I really did like this book. Thank you, CL for letting me have it! Thanks also to elstaplador for writing it. (And congrats, too, I see her second book is now published.)