Wednesday, 13 May 2009

The Wives of Bath (Susan Swan)

--The blurb--
"Mouse and Paulie, reluctant 14-year-old inmates of Bath Ladies College, are confronted by difficult questions. Why can't girls have muscles? Why don't boys cry? Gradually their secret life becomes a dangerous quest for the one small, vital thing that makes boys different from girls."

--The review--
This offering from the undeservedly little-known Susan Swan promises to deal with questions and conundrums relating to gender, which it explores intriguingly. As a bit of a gender specialist myself (my undergraduate dissertation talked about the representation of gender on the stage, and my postgraduate thesis took on grammatical gender in French), I unsurprisingly fell for this hook, line and sinker, not expecting to get a rollicking crime novel into the bargain. At the novel's centre is the sinister Paulie and her shy sidekick, Mouse Bradford. Without giving too much away, it somehow feels wrong to refer to 'her' sidekick, which in itself indicates that Swan addressed the notion of gender confusion successfully.

The narrative arc not only takes an intensive look at Paulie and Mouse's personalities, but also brings in a few other touching elements in the form of characters Tory, Miss Vaughan, and Mrs Peddie, though other characters, such as Mouse's father Morley, are a little underdeveloped (albeit perhaps intentionally). The nature of the crime committed by Paulie is revealed slowly and tantalisingly in juxtaposition with the various disturbing revelations about her psyche. Also starkly illustrated is the attitude towards gender confusion at the novel's time period (the 1960s) and how it differs from how transgendered people would be treated today - instead of being sent for rehabilitation and normalisation, the transgendered would receive appropriate counselling and medical treatment and operations. This element gives the novel the same appeal as Amanda Whittington's Be My Baby, which holds up a similar contrast in terms of how people are treated.

As well as the plot playing out fabulously, the settings were richly laid, with one being able to picture perfectly every piece of scenery, from the dank dormitories and the school grounds by night to the landscapes of Mouse's country residence. Extra details, such as Swan's power of disturbing description and the parallel sub-plot of the presidency of John F Kennedy (and Mouse's admiration of him). The only weakness present in The Wives of Bath is perhaps inherent in the novel's title: the connection was only made briefly at the novel's beginning and end and the complexity of the link made it even more necessary to have it taking a more central role in terms of having a more consistent background thread throughout the narrative.

While this book didn't incite in me any desire to see the film adaptation of it (Lost and Delirious), on the grounds that as usual it appears that the director has taken too many liberties with it, it did inspire a wish to read more of Susan Swan's work, and a hope that soon she will be better known outside of Canada.

Other works by Susan Swan
What Casanova Told Me (2004)
The Last of the Golden Girls (1989)
The Biggest Modern Woman In The World (1983)

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