by Ellen Klages
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Another Tor.com novella release, Ellen Klages' Passing Strange was a finalist for this year's Nebula, Locus, and Mythopoeic awards, as well as the forthcoming British Fantasy and World Fantasy, winners of which will be announced in October and November, respectively. There are fantasy elements, but they're tangential to the basic plot, which is a beautifully told love story, one which has its share of tragedy, but ends on a magically positive note.
In present day San Francisco, Helen Young retrieves a package from a hidden room in the basement of a Chinatown property she owns. The next day she takes it to a dealer of rare books and ephemera. She asks to see an old pulp magazine he has on display. She's not interested in the stories inside, only the cover art by Haskel, who had produced over a hundred garish covers for the pulps in the '30s, before mysteriously disappearing in 1940. The dealer, along with most everyone, was mistaken in the assumption that Haskel was a man. Ms. Young asks if he would be interested in seeing the artist's final work, unseen by anyone since shortly after it was completed. The dealer is awestruck, and while he hesitates briefly since the art is completely different than expected, eventually gives in to her price of $200,000. As soon as the wire transfer is confirmed, she has her bank issue cashier checks of $50,000 each to several others, confirms the rest of her assets will go to charities, then closes her account and goes home. She dies later that night.
Flashback to 1940, where Helen Young is just getting started in her law practice. One of her few clients invites her to a dinner party, where she meets Loretta Haskel ("Just Haskel is fine."), and later Emily Netterfield. Helen supplemented her income dancing at Chinatown's Forbidden City restaurant, and also as occasional model for Haskel. A few weeks after the dinner party, she invites Haskel out for a drink at Mona's, a notorious lesbian bar. Haskel is surprised to discover that Emily performs there, her singing voice, and her beauty, enticing all the other women to want to take her home after a performance. Emily's roommate, the bar's pianist, gets into a scuffle with a tourist and is arrested. Haskel offers the couch in her studio for Emily to spend the night. Emily's reaction on waking to the view of a frightening and lurid painting on an easel, inspires Haskel to use her as a model for future work. It doesn't take long for their romance to blossom.
I don't want to reveal much more of the plot, but will concentrate on their relationship. Emily had not been in San Francisco long, having journeyed by train from the East Coast after being expelled from university for being discovered in bed with another girl. Haskel is actually married, although she has not seen her husband, who is in the Navy, for several years. The strengths of this story lie in the sincere emotions expressed by the women in the brief moments they are able to be themselves, since most of the time they have to keep secrets from the world. Along with the poignant romance, evocative descriptions of the magical city of San Francisco are also a highlight, most particularly a day trip to the Golden Gate Exposition on man-made Treasure Island. Unfortunately, the end to that beautiful day is marred by the unexpected return of Haskel's husband. The remainder of the story concerns Emily and Haskel's efforts to avoid him, and in keeping their affair a secret. One fantasy element is provided by Franny, Helen's client who introduced them. She has a way of utilizing ori-kami, the Japanese art of paper folding, to bend space, used to create short cuts in getting from one point in the city to another, although the limit is approximately a mile. Haskel's grandmother had bequeathed her another type of magic, one she had utilized to escape the Nazis in Europe. After extensive research, Haskel believes she can also use it to protect her and Emily, to escape her husband and live the rest of their lives joyfully together. Helen agrees to help them with their plan.
A very timely story. Just as society seemed to be shifting to a more enlightened view of alternate sexual orientations, forces are now on the rise which wish to push back the clock to more opressive times. I'm sure San Francisco has always been more tolerant, but I'm also sure Klages, who lives there, did her research. Laws were on the books forbidding homosexual relationships, even the physical appearance of an alternate lifestyle. If a woman could not verify she was wearing at least three articles of feminine clothing (bra, panties, shoes, etc.), she was subject to arrest as a deviant. Emily preferred a more masculine appearance, but always made sure to adhere to that rule, even when applying a fake mustache and donning her brother's white tie and tails when escorting Haskel to a meal and dancing at Forbidden City. That evening became the inspiration for Haskel's final painting, one which assured their long and happy life together.
A touching romance, beautifully told, which should resonate with anyone with any compassion. A near perfect 5 stars from me. Highly recommended.
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