Thursday, May 4, 2017

Book Review: Long Black Veil by Jennifer Finney Boylan

I've been reading a lot of trans- related books of late.  However, I have not reviewed them here.  It's not that they weren't worth it- I just... haven't.

Luna. Dress Codes, If I Was Your Girl, This is How it's Always Been...

However, this one hit me hard, for various reasons.  The fact that it was written by my dear friend, the incredible Professor Jennifer Finney Boylan, is a bonus.

If you read this blog and don't know who she is, shame on you!  ;)  Click here for a bio and stuff, and HERE for a something I wrote about her.

Long Black Veil is Jenny's first work of fiction in twenty years.  It is a mystery/thriller, set both around the Philadelphia area and in Maine.

I've sold many copies of this book already.  How?  I describe it thusly:

Six college friends enter the old Eastern State Penitentiary in 1980.  They get locked in.  Are they alone?  Only five come out- one has disappeared.  Over thirty years later, a body is found in the prison.  Whodunnit?

It's also a meditation on Secrets.  We all have them.  As Jenny has said often (paraphrasing) the biggest change in Coming Out wasn't changing gender, but from being someone WITH a big secret to being someone WITHOUT a big secret.  And. she is absolutely correct.  There is one more theme.  I'll get to that.

Everyone in this book has a secret.  True, some are bigger than others- but all play a role.  And that's another wonderful facet- all of the characters, major and minor, are all fully realized.  They are all people.  Are there stock characters anywhere?  Yes- filling in the edges.  But in the book you meet such characters as Backflip Bob (from Boston!), Herr Krystal, Wailer, and many more.  And have google ready, as here there be Art History- and it means something!

After all, Paintings do speak, right?

What about trans issues?  Is there a trans character?  Well, take a close look at the cover.  The top and bottom.  The very faint pink at the top and the baby blue at the bottom.  The colors of the Trans flag. Think there may be some trans stuff?

At Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church, at Jenny's signing for this book

One passage absolutely floored me.    I quote:

I thought about it, but at this point all I could feel was exhaustion with her, with the whole teeming world of people who are not transgender, with their endless questions and interrogations.  Enough already.  I'm sorry, but I have to ask:  What is wrong with you people?  Does a human soul really require an explanation before she can be deemed worthy of human kindness?  Does compassion for one's fellow humans really demand a test first?

So incredibly True.  That's the point, isn't it?  Why can't people just Accept us for who we are?  Why do they demonize us, hunt us, kill us?  Why do they try to legislate us out of existence?

Sorry.  Derailed myself for a second.

I mentioned another theme.  It's something I am still contemplating.  I quote Jenny:

The question posed by the book is, how to we connect those two halves of our lives, so we don't wind up traumatized, as people living two lives instead of one, as people who are whole, with a full history that includes both before AND after?... 

Everyone I know has a before and an after of some kind.  It's the nature of being alive.  If you DON'T have an experience so profound it's hard to get over--whether its really good or really bad-- it's kind of like nothing ever happened to you.  And who would want that life?

I think about MY befores and afters.  (Hell, I wrote about the topic HERE)

As I read the book, I messaged with Jenny about my thoughts.  She was kind enough to discuss some points with me, and listened to me prattle on with my ideas.  I mentioned how familiar the characters seemed, and she replied "Everyone in this book is me."

And they are.  As with all great writers, the characters populating the story are facets of the writer's soul.  I see it in my fiction.  I see it in every book I read.  It is an inescapable Truth that we can only Truly write about what we Know, and so all characters will be a part of the writer.  And characters ARE the story.  One can put characters in the most foreign science fiction landscape or distant past event- it doesn't matter.  Stories are about the characters.  Without them, there is nothing.  This is why people like certain authors- those authors speak to their soul through their words and characters.

After all, Books do speak, right?

In Long Black Veil, Jennifer Finney Boylan spoke to my soul.  I finished the book a couple weeks ago, and I'm still pondering its message.  It haunts me.

It's a fun ride- a worthy ride... a book I recommend very highly.

Go to your local Brick and Mortar bookstore and buy it!

Eastern State Penitentiary

1 comment:

  1. OMG, I totally did not catch the colors of the trans flag on the cover, but I'll blame that on having read an advance digital copy. Although it's a multi-character story, Judith is the heart of this story - it is her identity, her journey, and her circumstances that drive so much of it. A wonderful book.