28 January 2017

Review: Passing Strange by Ellen Klages

Image from Tor.com
Passing Strange
Ellen Klages
Tor.com, 24 January 2017
e-book/ PB, 160pp

San Francisco is a city well-suited to magic...

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book via NetGalley.

Helen Young went into her bedroom. She changed into a pair of blue silk pyjamas, brushed her hair, and put on a touch of lipstick. Then she got into bed, turned out the light, and went to sleep for the last time humming a Cole Porter tune until she and the melody simply drifted away.

So ends one of the characters is this hauntingly beautiful tale of life in the queer melting pot of 40s San Francisco.

Helen is one of a group of young women who work or socialise in Mona's, a club where girls can be boys. Whether working as entertainers not only for their own circle but for the plump mid-west tourists who come to gawp, or simply drifting among like minded exiles from straight society, they stand by each other, providing rooms when needed, meals, cover from the police and moral support.

Haskell is at the centre of this circle. She is a talented artist who makes her living drawing pictures for pulp comic books: the kind of thing where a scantily dressed woman is chained down and menaced by a purple monster. Why does she draw such pictures? Well, it's where the money is, but she has other reasons, as we - and Emily, newly acquainted with the little group of friends - gradually learn. Haskell's life hasn't been easy and she is in a sense perhaps still on the run from her past.

There are others in the group too, including some with startling abilities (like being able to shrink space - but only in that misty city of magic, San Francisco) and we see their joys and sorrows, but it's Haskell and Emily that this lovely, romantic book focusses on. Everything seems against them: the law, society, the looming war (deftly illustrated by the presence of a refugee girl from England), an abusive husband. But they have good friends.

How this setup leads to that ending, to Helen's ending decades later, I won't say because the tension of the story hangs upon it. It's a taut, well-contsructed plot, one of those books where no word is superfluous. And there are some beautiful passages (see especially the parts describing the 1940 World's Fair, taking place on an island in the Bay, just as the rest of the world went to pieces).

I hadn't read any Klages before but I will be looking for more of her writing after this. (You can find a bonus story by here.) An excellent book that features well drawn characters, abounds in atmosphere and celebrates a period and setting I was completely unaware of. (Oh, and look at that beautiful cover!)

If you want to know more about the book, listen to this episode of the Coode Street Podcast where Jonathan Strahan and Gary Wolfe discuss it with the author. It's a good listen.

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