Friday, June 3, 2011

The Big Bang Symphony by Lucy Jane Bledsoe

The Big Bang Symphony was a finalist in the lesbian fiction category of the Lambda Literary Awards last week and I thought it stood a very good chance at winning, although the competition was strong. I haven't yet had the opportunity to read the winning title - Inferno by Eileen Myles - but I love her writing too.

All four of Nancy Pearl's doorways provide equally good access into Bledsoe's novel about three women in Antarctica - character, setting, story and language - but I'm going to focus on the characters here. Cheerful Rosie is a cook, there for her third season and continuing to make the same bad choices in men as always. Taciturn Alice is a geologist doing post-doctoral research; she's fiercely intelligent but has difficulty comprehending emotions and metaphor. Mikala is a composer who is participating in an artist's residence program; she hasn't been able to write music since her partner Sarah died, but she's "hoping the South Pole would shock some music out of her." Mikala also has an ulterior motive - she plans to confront her father, a man she's never met, who is working at the South Pole.

Although only one of the three is a lesbian, someone shares a joke about the large numbers of them at the bottom of the world: "How do you get a woman in Antarctica?" "Be one." So perhaps it isn't surprising that Mikala meets the first person since Sarah's death who "seemed to exist in four dimensions, who billowed in her imagination." Alice is so perplexed by the attentions of three different men - including a lab tech with a "jaunty New Zealand accent, much more mountain and sea in it than a British accent" - that she tries to sort it out in a spreadsheet. And Rosie is the naughty girl with a generous heart, living dangerously but craving safety.

According to a science poster at McMurdo Station, "the environment caused the release of a rogue hormone that screwed up a person's judgement and memory." Rosie puts it more simply: "the Ice splits your heart right open." During the course of the story, the three women find themselves untethered and grappling for the ladder that will lead them into the next stage of their lives. Their friendship takes on critical importance when it becomes a matter of survival.

Readalikes: Tent Peg by Aritha van Herk (geology camp; bisexuality; bleak and beautiful landscape) and White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean (ignore an incident of homophobia and enjoy the vivid setting of Antarctica; passion for science; survival suspense).

2 comments:

Claire at Latitude said...

1) I'm intrigued by this, because it's not the first lesbian novel set in Antarctica. (Is that significant, and if so, how?)

2) I'm also intrigued by your mention of the Geraldine McCaughrean. In my country, children's/YA lit expert Kate de Goldi rates her very highly. Do you think the homophobic incident reflects an authorial attitude or is it just an understandable bit of the story? (Perhaps I should just read it and decide for myself.)

3) What's more, Aritha van Herk rings loud bells. Initially I thought she wrote about the woman who fell in love with a bear (but my initial hits on Google indicate she wrote the foreword to that novel); then I thought perhaps she'd written a novel I'd read long ago about a runaway tomboy who lived in a hollowed-out tree far from civilisation... sorry, but do you know? It doesn't seem terribly easy to find out online.

Lindy said...

1. what other lesbian novel is set in Antarctica?

2. I think very highly of Geraldine McCaughrean's writing also. The homophobic bit in White Darkness was authorial, and made me cringe a bit, but I forgave her and still recommend the book.

3. A woman does interact with a bear in Aritha van Herk's Tent Peg, but you might be thinking of Marian Engel's Bear also. There's more than one runaway tomboy living wild in literature land, although I don't remember van Herk doing that... maybe Helen Humphrey's Wild Dogs? (Those Canadian authors are all so similar... [grin] ) I reviewed Tent Peg a while back and included a link above.