Saturday, June 10, 2017

Women in the Shadows by Ann Bannon

Rating: WORTHY!

Funny - I thought The Shadows was an all-male band! (That's a Brit joke). Frankly this novel came close to being a warty read, but in the end, it saved itself and I consider, while the main character is not likeable - not to me anyway - her story is worth reading, if only from an historical perspective.

I'd also like to note that while these stories have been praised for their realism, this realism extends only so far. Sexual promiscuity, whether hetero- or homo-, carries with it potential health costs, which were just as much of a problem in the sixties (even though AIDs had not reared its ugly head yet) as they have been in every other decade. This novel, though, is very much a summer of love novel (lots of sex and zero consequences), even though the summer of love was a long way in the future when these were written.

So for me, the strength of the novel was not in the realism per se, but in the graphic depiction of relationship problems as being precisely the same for the queer population as they are for everyone else. I think this was Bannon's real strength, showing that gays and lesbians (and everyone in between) are no different from anyone else, and this was in an era where they were widely (and legally) considered deviants and predators by the population at large.

Worse than this, and something these novels also show, is that anyone else doesn't have to deal with also being shamed and made into pariahs for who they love. This is a grotesque fear which has not been dispensed with even now, as we approach the diamond jubilee of these novels. That's the saddest thing about all of this.

There is one more thing: in an era where appallingly misnamed 'honor' killings are still the things which need to be killed-off, but which, instead of dying out as they must, are threatening to spread along with all those who are immature, insecure, and clueless enough to consider women to be property at best and inconveniences at worst, this novel unashamedly shows an interracial relationship exactly as it ought to be shown: where it's about the relationship, and not the skin color of those who are involved in the relationship.

In celebration of Gay Pride Month (which may be June or July - no one seems to agree on it!), I'm reviewing several LGBTQIA novels, of which this is one of three Ann Bannon books I got from my local - and very excellent! - library. Excellent as they are, though, they did not have the first three of her hexalogy, only three of the last four: Women in the Shadows, Journey to a Woman, and Beebo Brinker. The other books are Odd Girl Out, I Am a Woman, and The Marriage.

Ann Weldy, who wrote as Ann Bannon, completed the so-called 'Beebo Brinker Chronicles' in the late fifties and early sixties as a means of giving vent to lesbian feelings which she felt constrained from letting loose in any other way. Like this way wasn't brave enough?! Good god! She was married to a guy who didn't approve of these 'sordid little tales', and yet she went ahead and did it anyway and the novels were very well received for their realism in a world of sadly cheap 'pulp' sex novels. She had no idea of how influential these books had been until twenty years later when she separated from a husband with whom she had had two children in a marriage that must otherwise have been barely endurable for her.

Laura first appeared as a student in the very first book, where she was involved in a lesbian relationship with another student - mirroring a somewhat similar but unrequited relationship Ann knew of in real life. In this book, Laura is coming to the end of a two year-long relationship with Betty Jean "Beebo" Brinker - a classical butch lesbian. The relationship is diseased and co-dependent, and it's highly destructive, but Laura doesn't seem to have the strength to get out of it, and Beebo doesn't want to get out of it. She claims to love Laura, but in reality, she's a jealous, manipulative, rather psychotic alcoholic, who will do almost literally anything to hold on to Laura.

Laura goes from one bad relationship to another because she doesn't seem capable of recognizing it when she gets a good one. She starts an affair with a woman who calls herself Tris, but who uses Laura just as cruelly as Beebo does. Eventually, and feeling rejected by Tris and fearful of Beebo, Laura agrees to marry Jack, who is gay, but who is tired of "chasing boys" as the author unfortunately describes it. No, he's not a pedophile, but he calls young men boys and he's sworn off them.

In many ways, Jack and Laura are mirror images. He's had it just as bad as she has. He's also an alcoholic, but in order to get over being dumped by Terry, his young stud of a lover, he proposes to Laura who eventually feels weak enough to accept it, and they marry and move in together, and Jack quits the booze. Theirs is a loving but asexual relationship since neither finds the other sexually attractive, although they are quite affectionate.

Laura becomes pregnant through artificial insemination with sperm from Jack, who is a sweet guy when he's not bemoaning Terry or getting drunk. Actually he's even sweet when he's drunk, but can Laura see what a good thing she has going? Not really. The problem is that Terry isn't done with Jack and Laura isn't done with Beebo, so things get bad for a while, but the ending turns it around enough for me to rate this a worthy read despite Laura's pathetic, limp rag character. It does tell an interesting story although some readers might be put off by the rather twisted actions, particularly those engineered by Beebo, during some of it.